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Sir Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
The Mines of Sulphur - an opera in three acts (1963) [107:08]
Kristopher Irmiter (bass-baritone) - Braxton
Beth Clayton (mezzo) - Rosalind
Brandon Jovanovich (tenor) - Boconnion
James Maddalena (baritone) - Tovey
Dorothy Byrne (mezzo) - Leda
Brian Anderson (tenor) - Fenney
Michael Todd Simpson (baritone) - Tooley
Caroline Worra (soprano) - Jenny
Andew Gorell (silent part) - Trim
Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra/Stewart Robertson
rec. 2004, Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York
CHANDOS CHSA5036(2) SACD [56:42 + 50:26]

This admirably engineered and documented set was issued in 2005 so why try to review it now? Well, MWI have never closed the door on back catalogue reviews and this is a significant set. It's Bennett's only full-length opera on disc. He died in 2012 and in terms of major fests, apart from the Barbican/BBC 'Total Immersion' event in December 2016, his reputation appears to be taking the same route of decline as those of Tavener and Tippett. Some might claim that such events are a bellwether for obscurity. Even the BBC compromised the 'Total Immersion' by broadcasting only the first half of the two all-Bennett concerts. That said they did place the unbroadcast second halves of the concert on the BBCSO and BBCCO websites but for a month only.

While there are a few Bennett CDs he has not exactly been spoilt. It is worth mentioning the Decca British Music Collection which included his Kovacevich-played Piano Concerto also reissued with other works on Lyrita, his choral music on Collegium and Signum Classics, the works for piano and orchestra (Metronome), his collected piano music (Metronome) and his 1975 Three Choirs extravaganza Spells. Heinrich Schiff was the soloist in his major score Sonnets to Orpheus premiered in Manchester by the Hallé and Loughran in 1980. The Caroline Lamb - Elegy (for viola and orchestra) is poignant, succulent and in his populist film music idiom while the Viola Concerto, premiered by Roger Best was a tougher proposition – very much out of the composer's resolute concert-world glossary. Koch International issued a CD (3-7341-2) of his Violin Concerto and Third Symphony which share the same style-sheet. Chandos has also produced an orchestral volume with the Partita (1995), Reflections on a Sixteenth Century Tune (1999), Songs before Sleep (2002-03) and Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song for cello and orchestra (2004) (CHAN 10389).

The Mines of Sulphur storyline is carried by a libretto by Beverley Cross (1931-1998). The opera was first broadcast on 13 November 1966 with Colin Davis conducting Sadler's Wells Opera forces; Norman Del Mar took the reins for other evenings. Cross again collaborated with Bennett in 1968: All the King's Men - a 40 minute piece for young people. They worked together again in 1970 in Bennett's final full-scale three-act opera Victory. There an equally violent tragedy is played out in the Dutch East Indies. It's based on Joseph Conrad's novel. Victory and was broadcast from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on 16 May 1970 conducted by Edward Downes; does anyone have a recording of that event?

The story of The Mines of Sulphur is set in England's West Country where Bennett was brought up. As for the characters, none emerges as a hero. Vanity and skulduggery, cruelty and murder are the order of the day. The atmosphere echoes the Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge-tragedies. Braxton is a landowner. He exploits Rosalind who tries to escape but returns with Boconnion and Tovey. Boconnion murders Braxton and the three make merry with Braxton's finery. A troupe of actors calls and put on a play, The Mines of Sulphur, as payment for staying at the hall. The play uncannily parallels real life and Rosalind and Tovey are so distressed by the coincidences that they call a halt to the production. One of the actors declares that he knows Boconnion for what he is. The company escapes leaving one of their number, Jenny, who, it turns out, carries the plague. Rosalind, Boconnion and Tovey realise there is no escape from a pestilential death. They pray in vain to God for mercy.
The Mines of Sulphur is dedicated to Britten and the piece was written at the invitation of the Aldeburgh Festival. For one reason or another Bennett switched the commission to Sadler's Wells. The connection with Aldeburgh continued and as late as June 1977 the Snape Maltings hosted cabaret recitals with Bennett and Elizabeth Montgomery. The style of Mines tends towards Berg. Swirling tension and a sense of disaffection are the order of the day. Threat hangs almost constantly in the air. Act I often heaves with emotional volcanic eruptions large and small. Even the occasional stretch of stability has an innate volatility. At tr. 6 CD 1 the music acquires an exciting dramatic impulse: a sense of life being exciting but nasty, brutish and short; where is tenderness? There's none to come from Tovey and Boconnion. Gentleness comes briefly in the music on the next track. It was at this point that I noticed how the composer very rarely has the singers following the same melody as the orchestra. There's always a tension of difference. From time to time in this score a French horn calls out; it's usually a richly redolent effect showing Bennett's delight in the instrument as reflected in his Horn Sonata and Actaeon for horn and orchestra. The arrival of the actors on the scene prompts an eloquent and subtly-tinted emotional message in the strings which is often transformed, curdled even. The romance is picked up by the Jenny and Rosalind characters with their voices torridly swept up and down at the end of Act I.

The micro overture for Act II might almost carry the superscription: 'in time of war'. A new element appears at tr. 14 with the music subtly suggesting a strangely inconstant motion of clocks and time in anarchy. When Haidee — one of the characters in the play within a play — sings of her sadness and of the hope of love Bennett finds real mastery even if it does come in the form of a bleak and fragile serenade. The character Hugo has about him unctuous tones of a Pandarus — parallels with that character in Walton's Troilus and Cressida. Soon after this the score spits vicious activity in a rather American William Schuman way but also prompting memories of the Medea styles of Barber and Giannini. Three separated Nocturnes for orchestra are found on CD 2. The first is quiet, Mahlerian and ends with a Bergian solo for violin. The second carries the implication of time thrashed forward. The third features tender strings and a French horn solo. The scene with Rosalind, Boconnion, Leda and Tooley features some whooping wild-eyed singing. There's no clear plot pause between acts 2 and 3 and the opera as a whole ends quietly. There's no tear-soaked Puccinian victory even if Bennett's writing benefits greatly from sound that has plenty of impact across a big soundstage.

Cross had a gift for text that simply flies along. As we can witness in Mines he delights in short economical sentences rather than dense paragraphs. There are lots of quick single lines and few paragraphs. It could never be accused of suffering from inertia. Even so Bennett and Cross do not scout over the emotion. This economy of expression is just as well because the storyline employs a play within a play in Mines which adds a tier of complexity. The storyline, brutish, violent and chilling, grips the attentive listener. It's not the first time that pestilence has featured in literature as a frisson-inducing retribution meted out to villains: I think of Conan Doyle's "The Blighting of Sharkey". No doubt there are other instances.

The two CDs in this set nestle in a single-width jewel box. The case and a substantial booklet are housed in a card slip-case. The libretto is in English and is sung in English. The booklet presents the libretto in full with parallel French and German translations. Stewart Robertson, the conductor, writes the liner-note. This Scottish conductor has experience of modern opera and beyond. His name cropped up here most recently in a Lyrita disc of William Wordsworth's Fifth Symphony. Add to this a perfunctory paragraph from the composer, a compact synopsis and artist profiles.

There is no shortage of British twentieth century operas crying out for, or at least deserving of, recording. I think, first and foremost, of Berkeley's glorious Nelson but also of Hamilton's Anna Karenina and Josephs' Rebecca. We can hope for these but each is likely to be an expensive proposition. Perhaps someone somewhere has a respectable copy of Bennett's other major opera, Victory that could be prepared for commercial issue if all the copyright aspects were properly tied off. However in the case of Bennett's The Mines of Sulphur we can experience this stimulating and disturbing opera now. Chandos and its collaborators here leave no cause to regret this issue and everything to celebrate.

Rob Barnett



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