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Sir Nicholas JACKSON (b. 1934) The Rose and the Ring (2016) [68.51]
William Morgan, tenor – Prince Giglio
Edward Grint, baritone – Prince Bulbo, Count Hogginarmo
Robyn Parton, soprano – Princess Rosalba, Fairy Blackstick
Katherine Crompton, mezzo-soprano – Princess Angelica
Katie Coventry, mezzo-soprano – Countess Gruffanuf
Peter Aisher, tenor – Captain Hedzoff
Michael Mofidian, bass – King Valoroso
Sarah Shilson, soprano – Queen
Concertante of London/Sir Nicholas Jackson
rec. Drapers’ Hall, London, 4 and 7 May 2016 NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6339 [68.51]
This piece is described by its composer as ‘an opera in two acts’, but in purely musical terms it may be regarded as a sort of apotheosis of the neo-classical style with music that derives in its entirety from arrangements for chamber orchestra of movements from the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). For some obscure reason these charming vignettes are allied to a text drawn from The Rose and the Ring by William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63), originally published nearly a century after Scarlatti’s death as part of a collection of occasional Christmas pieces and described by the author as a ‘Fireside Pantomime’ although it is written in narrative style and not as a drama. The plot, absurd even by the hardly exacting standards of the genre of pantomime, revolves around a farrago of mistaken identities and disguises which would be regarded as excessive even in a baroque opera, spiced with some sadistic scenes of threatened torture and execution of the kind that Carroll and Gilbert were subsequently to mock with gruesome effect in Alice and The Mikado respectively. In point of fact Thackeray (unlike his later parodists) actually consummates his bloodthirsty tendencies, with some sycophantic courtiers being eaten by lions; and it is only the sense of absurdity that prevents the plot from being really sinister in its undertones. There are no engaging Becky Sharps or Barry Lyndons to be found in The Rose and the Ring, with its thoroughly unsympathetic collection of characters who thankfully fail to elicit the slightest degree of sympathy from the audience.
The alliance of pre-existing music to words by major English authors might suggest some parallels between Jackson’s ‘opera’ and Holst’s At the Boar’s Head with the latter’s Shakespearean text overlaid across melodic material largely deriving from English folksong. But these parallels are hard to discern. For much of the time Thackeray’s words are simply set to baroque-sounding vocal lines, rife with pseudo-period ornamentation and riddled with false accents. To take just one of many examples, the totally incidental word “to” in the phrase “from one kingdom to another” is extended in a totally unnatural manner near the beginning of the ‘aria’ in track 6. The CD cover observes that the full text of the English libretto is contained in the booklet, and that is true; but the booklet itself clearly stands in some need of careful proof-reading, being riddled with misprints, differences between what is sung and what is printed, ascriptions of phrases to singers other than those actually singing them, and failing even to indicate who is actually singing some fairly major roles in the action. Nor are the singers free from fault here, with some consonants simply swallowed, omitted or otherwise inaudible. William Morgan, Robyn Parton and Katherine Crompton have the greater share of vocal proceedings, although the singer who takes the part of the villainous King Padella really should have been individually credited in the booklet. In his final scenes Peter Aisher, singing a tenor role, seems in places to be transformed into a bass.
The booklet contains some period illustrations in the shape of caricatures which featured in the original publication (although these are not attributed, they are the work of Thackeray himself – and they look good enough to be by Tenniel). We are also given a complete list of the individual sonatas from which the music is drawn in each track. As I have observed, the selected link between the words and the music of Scarlatti is oddly unexplained and apparently unmotivated; and although the results have a considerable degree of charm, the sharp edge of Thackeray’s satire is blunted. The singers, their occasional lapses in diction excepted, have generally fine voices and combine well in chorus; and the playing of the instrumentalists – single woodwind, string quintet and harpsichord – is sprightly and pointed under the direction of the composer, one-time organist at St David’s Cathedral. The Rose and the Ring is hardly to be considered as a contribution to the realm of modern British opera, or to the dramatic sphere of musical theatre; but as an entertainment pure and simple it might well appeal to groups with the technical skill to sing and play it. The recorded sound is excellently balanced and clear. The opera was apparently first performed on a concert on 4 May 2016, one of the dates given for this recording; if it was a public performance, the audience were as quiet as mice.