Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Tobias and the Angel
Bozru - Trevor Anthony (bass)
Rhezia - Carolyn Maia (mezzo)
Tobias - John Ford (tenor)
Azarias - Ronald Lewis (baritone)
Tobit - Jess Walters (bass)
Anna - Janet Howe (contralto)
Raguel - Richard Golding (bass)
Sara - Elaine Malbin (soprano)
Asmoday - Roy Patrick (spoken role)
London Symphony Orchestra /Norman Del Mar
Live recording, BBC Television, 19 May 1960
Antony HOPKINS (1921-)
Hands Across the Sky
Professor Neutron - Eric Shilling (baritone)
Miss Fothergill - Ann Dowdall (soprano)
Squeg - Stephen Manton (tenor)
Intimate Opera Chamber Ensemble /Antony Hopkins
BBC studio recording, ca 1960
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO 096 [68:41 + 61:15]
The history of British opera is so full of injustices, inertia, discouragements, false starts and aborted projects and careers that singling out a particular case for re-evaluation will always be contentious. There is an obvious danger that as different groups lobby for different composers and different operas the collective case for British opera actually weakens, and British opera companies can excuse themselves from righting wrongs by politely observing that they can’t please everyone, though they welcome suggestions. Meanwhile, the release of recordings like the one under review does at least allow a reasonably happy compromise between staged revival and complete oblivion. A realistic prediction is that anyone who loves the music of Arthur Bliss will have to have it, anyone with a serious interest in twentieth-century British opera might (and should) add it to their collection, and everyone else will simply ignore it. But let me be wildly optimistic for a moment and suggest that maybe, just maybe, it could bring Bliss the opera composer a little of the justice he has long been denied. Perhaps, in the next few years, there could be one less production of a Benjamin Britten opera, and one more of another British ‘B’.
Bliss’s entire operatic ‘career’ - though that is hardly the right word - was lived in the gigantic shadow cast by Britten, and has never emerged from it. His first and most ambitious opera, The Olympians, was produced at Covent Garden in 1949. It is by no means a perfect opera, if such a thing exists, though its weaknesses can be largely blamed on J. B. Priestley, Bliss’s distinguished librettist, whose rejection of anything like Brittenesque realism produced some rather two-dimensional characters. Musically it is stirring, magnificent, and the story really grips the imagination. The initial production was massively under-rehearsed, but still impressed many reviewers, including that hard-to-please Wagnerian Ernest Newman. John Allison recently told me that he knows people alive today who attended the premiere, and that they still go misty eyed when speaking of it. In some countries an opera which had achieved this much would soon have merited a revival. Not in Britain. It was not performed again until 1972, when a single concert performance of a shortened version of the score was put on to mark Bliss’s eightieth birthday (a recording of this has been released on CD). The fact that The Olympians was so quickly placed on the institutional shelf seems to have killed off Bliss and Priestley’s original plan to work on further operas together - what a loss.
Towards the end of the 1950s, fortunately, Bliss was tempted by a BBC commission to write a second opera. This time his librettist was Christopher Hassall, who had honed his skills in his collaborations with Ivor Novello. The resulting work, Tobias and the Angel, was given a single BBC television broadcast on 19 May 1960. The economics of television opera have always been baffling, but the BBC spent a lot of money on Tobias, and it received good reviews, so the corporation’s decision not to broadcast it again stands out as extraordinary even in this admittedly surreal world. Bliss did not intend Tobias to be simply a television opera, and he prepared a slightly adapted version of the score suitable for conventional theatrical performance. Amazingly, the opera still awaits its theatrical premiere, and after this second demonstration of his country people’s apathy Bliss unsurprisingly wrote no more operas. The sound recording of the 1960 broadcast that is now available gives a good idea of what has been lost, both actually and potentially.
Tobias and the Angel is a very fine opera. Bliss was faulted for over-egging the pudding a bit in The Olympians, and Tobias can be recognised as an intelligent artist’s response to such criticism, though the TV medium, too, probably played its part in encouraging him to adopt a leaner, more economical approach. Tobias is instantly recognisable as by the same composer, however, and the dramatic material is in fact quite similar, with the Archangel Raphael having assumed human form as the ‘hired man’ Azarias in the same way that the ancient Greek deities had been transformed into strolling actors in the earlier opera. The dramatic shaping of the material is finer in Tobias, and the excitement mounts steadily through a series of succinct and nicely contrasted and nuanced scenes until the climactic encounter between Raphael and the demon Asmoday is reached. I use the word ‘excitement’ in its normal sense, incidentally, not as it is sometimes used in arts criticism, to signify something like aesthetic arousal. The climactic scene of Tobias and the Angel is genuinely chilling, and it was a masterful stroke of Bliss’s to make Asmoday a spoken role, with the voice, according to the libretto, ‘not seem[ing] to come from the SHAPE itself but to be in the air around us, or even not external at all, like a thought in our own minds.’ The BBC did a wonderful job with this in 1960. A similar effect has since been contrived for Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera.
The present recording is of course of a television broadcast, and with no libretto supplied, following the action is not always easy - especially as Bliss, who had been writing for the cinema long before he turned to opera, often relies on the orchestra to carry the story. At such moments it is frequently easy to guess what has happened so descriptive is the music: for example when a quarrel between Tobias and Azarias is averted by the latter ‘bow[ing] his apology’. At other times, though, it is impossible to tell from the music alone what was being represented on the television screen, for Bliss was choosing to be more broadly atmospheric. Nevertheless, the energy and conviction of the music carry the listener through the obscurer parts, and it is the treatment of the orchestra which most clearly reveals Bliss’s distinctive, film-influenced, concept of opera and fine feeling for dramatic effects.
The companion work, or filler, is Antony Hopkins’ Hands Across the Sky, less than half the length of Bliss’s opera. It was apparently chosen because, though written for stage performance by the Intimate Opera Company (who gave the premiere in 1959), it was broadcast by the BBC just three months before Tobias and the Angel, on 7 February 1960. This does not seem a particularly strong reason for placing it beside the Bliss work, and moving from one opera to the other is a little disconcerting, for they are totally different in character. Hopkins’ work, with a libretto by Gordon Snell, was described as ‘an opera of the near future’, and concerns the arrival on earth of the alien Squeg (a strange green creature), and the romantic havoc he causes when he inspires passion in the matronly bosom of Miss Fothergill. Opinions will differ as to whether it is more fun than silly or more silly than fun, but there can be no doubt that it is very dated, in the same way that the flying saucer scene in Salad Days is dated. Probably not thinking much of posterity, Hopkins clearly delighted in his subject, for which he composed tongue-in-cheek music with a delightful Mozartean sparkle. Hands Across the Sky is much easier to follow than Tobias and the Angel, partly because it actually includes a spoken narration of the kind often used in radio broadcasts, and partly because it all takes place in one room, in standard Intimate Opera style. Nevertheless, like many purely farcical works itreally has to be seen to hold the attention. If such material as this survives, I would personally rather have heard one of Hopkins’ earlier, non-sci-fi operas for Intimate Opera, written in collaboration with Michael Flanders, for they were televised too. Perhaps they will make up some future release.
I was one of the fortunate few (apparently) who already had a recording of the 1960 Tobias and the Angel. Comparing the Pristine Audio release with that, I am very impressed with how much the sound quality has been improved through Andrew Rose’s careful remastering. The music has far more brightness and clarity - one must suppose that it sounds greatly superior to what it would have done through a 1960 television set! The only disappointment is the soprano part, which now sounds screechy where before it sounded slightly muffled: I assume that this has something to do with what Rose apologetically calls ‘peak top-end distortion’ in his ‘Producer’s Note’. The sound quality of Hands Across the Sky is superb, as are the performances, and this must stand as a definitive record of the work by those for whom it was composed.
I shall enter a small grumble at the packaging offered with the CD. It contains a single folded sheet printed on one side, and the information that ‘Full programme notes can be found online’. In fact the useful notes by Lewis Foreman online are not particularly full, and could for the most part have been accommodated on the reverse side of the CD insert. It is hard to believe much in the way of costs was saved by not printing them, and in printed form they would have been insured against any closure of the website. And a correction: Andrew Rose’s ‘Note’ (which is printed on the CD insert) states that ‘It seems doubtful that any video images remain of either TV broadcast.’ Yet Jennifer Barnes’ book Television Opera (2003) states categorically that there is a video recording of Tobias and the Angel in the National Film and Television Archive. And Helga Bertz-Dostal’s classic but scarce Oper in Fernsehen of 1970 reproduces three photographs of the production. I am not sure what the copyright status of these is, but now the music is generally available, it seems worth reproducing one here: the central encounter between Azarias as Raphael and Asmoday. Assuming Barnes is right, there is a slim but mouth-watering possibility that the 1960 Tobias and the Angel will one day be available for purchase in a video medium. In the meantime, can some opera company please just go ahead and stage it?