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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
A Village Romeo and Juliet - opera in six scenes (1907) [121.22]
Helen Field (soprano) - Vreli; Arthur Davies (tenor) - Sali; Thomas Hampson (baritone) - Dark Fiddler; Stafford Dean (bass) - Marti; Barry Mora (baritone) - Manz; Elizabeth Dobie (soprano) - Gingerbread Woman; Pamela Mildenhall (soprano) - Young Vreli; Samuel Linay (treble) - Young Sali; David McShane (baritone) - 1st Bargeman; John Antoniou (bass) - 2nd Bargeman, Shooting-gallery man, 2nd Man; Vincent Pirillo (tenor) - 3rd Bargeman, Showman; Patricia Ann Caya (mezzo) - Wild girl, Cheap jewellery woman, 2nd Woman; Maria Venuti (soprano) - Slim girl; Sergio Lambana (tenor) - Hornplayer; Robert Lucien Demers (bass) - Hunchback, Merry-go-round man, 1st Man; Kimberley Barber (contralto) - Wheel of fortune woman, 3rd Woman
Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. Grossersaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 1-13 February 1989
DECCA 4750442 PRESTO CD [69.08 + 42.13]

While the representation of Delius’s operas on disc over the years has been patchy – and we badly need a reissue of the BBC versions of the early operas at one time available on CD – there have been four commercial recordings of A Village Romeo and Juliet to date, plus a video and a couple of transcripts of radio broadcasts. The first of these was the set of 78s conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham for the Delius Society - transferred at various times onto LP and CD - and this has been supplemented more recently by a Somm CD transcript of the BBC broadcast made with many of the same cast at around the same time. Although these are fascinating documents featuring the composer’s favourite conductor, the limited 1948 sound hardly begins to do justice to Delius’s scoring; and there are some remarkable differences in tempo between the two versions, which leads one to the conclusion that the 78rpm set was conditioned by the need to fit the score onto the limited length of sides available. There was at one time a pirated off-air broadcast available on LP conducted by Meredith Davies with the cast from Sadler’s Wells Opera and taped at a live performance given at the Alhambra Theatre, Bradford. This also was in mono, and it was not until the conductor returned to the score in 1972 for EMI that we finally received a stereo recording which did justice to the opera. It is this recording, now reissued on CD but seemingly currently only available as part of a Warner Classics 18-disc collection issued to commemorate Delius’s 150th anniversary, which provides the main competition to the Decca set under consideration here. At one time the opera also featured in an EMI Classics Beecham box. A later version in German, drawn from performances at the enterprising Kiel Opera, seems to have fallen under the deletions axe (CPO 999 328-2).

The set here was originally issued in two formats: as an Argo boxed set on CD, complete with texts and translations, and as the soundtrack of a film directed by Petr Weigl on Decca. Both are still currently shown as available, and this Decca audio reissue commendably still includes both a valuable essay by Christopher Palmer on the opera itself, and the sung text (without translation). Those familiar with the work from the Meredith Davies recording may be somewhat disconcerted by the latter, because for the EMI set a new translation was commissioned to replace the jaded version by Jelka Rosen (Delius’s long-suffering wife) which was used both for the Beecham recording and for the one under consideration here. Deryck Cooke, a committed supporter of Delius’s music, disliked the reworked libretto, commenting in the Gramophone that it altered the rhythms of the words to an undesirable degree. I am not so sure. Jelka Rosen’s version is hardly a literary masterpiece, strongly redolent of what used to be called ‘Wardour Street English’ and frequently perverting the meaning of the text; nor is Delius’s handling of the English language persuasive, with words stretched out over the existing melodic lines in a manner that seems designed to conceal rather than to reveal meaning. It works better in the visual medium, and can perhaps best be appreciated through the subtitles on the DVD which also includes a substantial bonus in the form of an English-language documentary on the composer and his music.

Be that as it may, we are concerned here with the relative merits of two rival audio versions of the score; and comparisons are frustratingly a matter of swings and roundabouts, with no one recording emerging as an outright winner. In the first place, the Mackerras recording has more warmth and emotional energy than Davies’, which is a considerable advantage in a work that is so atmospherically redolent of summer days and nights. The sound of the dream sequence where the lovers imagine their forthcoming wedding is ethereally rapt in Mackerras’s hands, where Davies is more matter-of-fact. On the other hand the beautiful closing scene, where the lovers hear the voices of bargemen on the river, is handled much more successfully by Davies and his engineers, the offstage voices properly distanced as opposed to the more materially solid sound of the singers here.

Perhaps the relative merits of the cast may help to determine a preference. As Sali, Arthur Davies is considerably more convincing than Davies’s Robert Tear; he is clearly a golden-toned young man here, while the estimable Tear is more clearly operatic in his forthright delivery. On the other hand, Helen Field – marvellous as she is when considered in her own right – must concede points to Elisabeth Harwood on EMI, who delivers her sad little song as she sits alone in her cottage with a wistful thread of sound that is absolutely enchanting. The only other substantial role in the opera falls to the enigmatic Dark Fiddler, and here the balance is more even between Thomas Hampson, handsome and forthright with just the right undertone of sinister intent, and Davies’s John Shirley-Quirk, more obviously noble in tone — the character may be a bastard, but he comes from wealthy stock — but with a more obvious chip on his shoulder. The two quarrelling fathers on EMI sound like Fasolt and Fafner arguing over the Ring in Rheingold, with Davies conjuring up a positively Wagnerian storm in the orchestra; Barry Mora and Stafford Dean here sound more within the Delian sound-world, less aggressive and more petty at the same time. Samuel Linay as the boy Sali is a positive asset for Mackerras; his opposite number on the Davies set is far less personable. But at the same time Davies benefits from a myriad of familiar British singers in the small character roles, including most notably a heavenly-sounding Ian Partridge as the third Bargeman. By comparison Mackerras employs largely Austrian-based singers — the recording, presumably to facilitate liaison with the Czech filming, was made in Vienna — whose command of English is fine and idiomatic but lacks the sense of ‘face’ that their British counterparts find on EMI.

The perplexing result of all this, especially for someone who adores the score as much as I do, is really to conclude that the committed Delian really needs both recordings. Or it would be, if the Davies version were still available as an independent item; in the bumper Delius box it still comes coupled with Eric Fenby’s fascinating talk on his years spent as the composer’s amanuensis. If it were separately available, or if a second-hand copy can be procured, it could then be supplemented by this Mackerras version on the soundtrack of the DVD. Petr Weigl’s production is really beautiful to look at, one of the best of the series of opera films he made during the 1980s and 1990s; the only drawback is the fact that most of the singers, except Thomas Hampson, are miming to the voices of other artists – although, given the brief scene of nudity as the two lovers consummate their passion before drowning themselves, that might be a matter of aesthetic preference. However, given the fact that Davies’s recording is now only readily available as part of an 18-CD collection (text available online only) which comprises a mixture of recordings made over a very wide span of years – some dating back to the days of 78s – the only real audio choice for most purchasers who wish to get to know a marvellous opera is this Mackerras version. It is an excellent introduction to the work, as well. Whatever happens, those who only know the Walk to the Paradise Garden from this opera should take advantage of the opportunity to get to know the many other glories of the score.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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