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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
The Travelling Companion – Opera in four Acts, Op. 146 (1916)
Libretto by Henry Newbolt after a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen
John – David Horton (tenor)
The Travelling Companion – Julien Van Mellaerts (baritone)
The Princess – Kate Valentine (soprano)
The King – Pauls Putnins (bass-baritone)
The Wizard/Ruffian – Ian Beadle (baritone)
The Herald/Ruffian – Felix Kemp (baritone)
Two Girls – Tamzin Barnett (soprano), Lucy Urquhart (soprano)
New Sussex Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Toby Purser
rec. live, 2 December 2018, Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, Essex, UK
Libretto included

The Travelling Companion, based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen, is the last of the nine operas that Stanford composed. So far as I’m aware, it’s the first of them to achieve a recording, though excerpts from the first of his operas, The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan (1878) were coupled with his very fine Requiem on a 1994 Marco Polo set, which is now available on Naxos (review). Stanford’s operas are very rarely encountered these days, though the 2019 Wexford Festival Opera programme included what I believe was a concert performance of The Veiled Prophet.

In his valuable booklet essay, Jeremy Dibble discusses Stanford’s lifelong interest in opera and he makes it clear that there was more to Stanford’s catalogue of operas than composition for its own sake. Though he was strongly drawn towards composition for the stage, his operatic output was bound up in his tireless advancement of the idea of establishing a national opera house in London at which operas would be sung in English in order to broaden access – though I’m sure that term wasn’t in vogue in Stanford’s day. As evidence of his thirst for opera, he became a key figure in the operatic side of the work of the Royal College of Music and the annual productions there attracted considerable renown.

Prof. Dibble relates that it was Harry Plunkett Greene, the baritone and son-in-law of Parry, who first drew Stanford’s attention to Andersen’s story as a potential source of an operatic plot. That was in 1911 and he and Stanford jointly approached Henry Newbolt, whose poetry Stanford had set in Songs of the Sea and Songs of the Fleet, to invite him to distil Andersen’s tale into a libretto. Newbolt seems to have taken his time over his side of the work, not finishing until early 1916; Stanford was much quicker and the opera was complete by June 1916. The Travelling Companion did not achieve a performance in Stanford’s lifetime. It was in 1925 that the opera was heard in full, in Liverpool, and I wasn’t altogether surprised to learn that later that same year the then Adrian Boult, doughty champion of British music, conducted further performances in Bristol. What surprised me much more was to learn that the young Michael Tippett produced an adapted version of the opera in 1930. A London staging took place in 1935 and was repeated in several more seasons. Though Jeremy Dibble doesn’t say so explicitly, I wonder if the 1939-45 war put an end to the opera’s success. After the war, the cultural climate was very different and works like The Travelling Companion fell right out of fashion. I wonder if there have been any airings of the opera in the post-war era until this one; somehow, I doubt it.

The present recording was taken down live at what I believe was a semi-staged production by New Sussex Opera. The one thing that the otherwise excellent booklet doesn’t do is give any information about this company but I understand that it is a community-based opera, founded some 40 years ago. I gleaned that information from a review for Opera Today written by my Seen and Heard colleague, Claire Seymour, who says that the company “brings together professionals, enthusiasts and volunteers to sterling effect”. Claire was commenting on a performance a couple of days earlier at London’s Cadogan Hall and her appraisal is well worth reading, not least for her keen-eyed observations on the production itself. While listening to the opera for the purposes of this review I have tried to put from my mind, successfully I believe, her comments on the musical performance and the music itself; it may be that Claire reached conclusions that were different to mine.

There are three key characters in the opera: John, the Travelling Companion who helps him, and the Princess, whose hand John seeks in marriage. Claire Seymour’s review contains an extremely succinct synopsis of the plot of The Travelling Companion and I hope that she won’t mind me reproducing it here. “It’s a blend of The Magic Flute and Turandot, Parsifal and The Pilgrim’s Progress. No wonder it flummoxed early listeners. John, made destitute by the death of his father, shelters from a storm in a church, interrupting two reprobates who are ransacking a grave. John stops the robbers’ sacrilegious pillage by giving them his last pennies. His selflessness raises the dead man’s spirit, and the latter escorts and guides John as he woos a beautiful Princess whose previous suitors have sacrificed their lives in failing to correctly answer her courtship riddle. The Princess is psychologically enslaved by a Wizard, but the latter is slain by the Traveller who passes on the secret answer to John who wins her hand in marriage. Upon the fortuitous denouement and marriage, the Companion returns to whence he came.” Whence he came is, of course the tomb which was seen in the first scene of the opera and the stage directions specify that at the very end of the opera this tomb is visible at the rear of the stage as the Companion takes his leave, thereby bringing the story full circle. In passing, I find it interesting that, in the matter of suitors paying a heavy price for failing to answer correctly a Princess’s riddles, Stanford should have pre-empted Puccini’s Turandot (1926).

I will freely confess that it has taken me some time to order my thoughts about The Travelling Companion. I’m an admirer of Stanford’s concert and church music. Since I’ve never had an opportunity to hear one of his operas, I was both keen and intrigued by the prospect. In the end, though, I have to say that after listening to it several times I’m less than fully persuaded by The Travelling Companion. Parts of it are very good but when I look back over my notes, I see that the passages that impressed me the most were without exception the more serious episodes. I’m afraid that the sections in which Stanford attempts to be light hearted just don’t cut it as far as I’m concerned. The jollity seems contrived and overdone. That’s especially true of Act I, scene 2.

The more I’ve listened to the opera, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that its Achilles heel is the music for the chorus. In the booklet, Jeremy Dibble makes much of the contribution of the chorus, finishing with this statement: “In fact, Stanford’s innovative use of the chorus as a lively, inventive and important protagonist in the opera seems to anticipate the importance Benjamin Britten gave to his own chorus in Peter Grimes over two decades later.” I hesitate to disagree with the living expert on Stanford, but whilst it’s true that the chorus is important structurally and as a participant in the drama, much of that importance is vitiated by the sheer lack of quality in the music which they have to sing. Almost without exception, the material for the chorus consists of what I’d call “chattering music”. How I longed to hear some choral writing that gave the singers long lines to deliver! Frankly, much of the chorus music verges on light opera; nowhere in this score does Stanford come even close to the quality or variety of choral writing that one hears in works such as the Mass Via Victrix (review), the Stabat Mater (review) or the Requiem (review). Now, it may be objected that those are serious concert works whereas The Travelling Companion is a theatrical entertainment, and I would accept that. However, even at the opera’s climax, when John answers the riddle and breaks the spell over the Princess by producing the severed head of the Wizard – a dramatic moment that is well handled by Stanford – within a mere moment or two the chorus, admittedly celebrating the happy outcome, adds its two penn’orth in banal, jaunty music that, in this context, simply jars.

As far as I’m aware the New Sussex Opera Chorus comprises amateur singers and I wondered if professional singers might have made more of Stanford’s choral writing but I honestly don’t think they would. The NSO Chorus are enthusiastic and committed, if somewhat lacking in polish, and they certainly bring energy to their music. In Act 1, scene 2, to which I referred a moment ago, the sound of the ladies’ voices is somewhat piping and that tends to accentuate the rather twee nature of the music but overall, the chorus members do their best with the material they’ve been given. I would have liked to hear what they would have made of more varied music.

The principal soloists are all professionals. David Horton is ardent in the role of John. At the very start he conveys well the desperation of John, alone in the world after the death of his father. Later, having been smitten at first sight by the Princess, he pursues her determinedly and bravely and at the end of the opera you feel he has deserved the happy ending. Horton’s singing is ringing and committed, his diction admirably clear. My only concern is a tendency to spread notes when he puts his voice under pressure at the top of his compass. Opposite him Kate Valentine offers rich-toned singing as the Princess. She does apply vibrato quite generously at times and that clouds her diction but there’s no doubting her engagement with the role. I admired the way she delivers her touching solo in Act IV (‘Now I am most unhappy’) and elsewhere she has the necessary vocal heft for the dramatic passages, such as her encounter with the Companion at the start of Act 3.

The pick of the singers – and the one who has the best music to sing – is Julien Van Mellaerts in the title role. His tone is consistently pleasing, the voice evenly produced, and his diction is excellent. He brings consistent dignity to his role, which is exactly what’s needed. That quality is in evidence right from his first encounter with John in Act 1 scene 2, and throughout the opera Van Mellaerts is a steadying influence on John and a character who engages our sympathy. In a work such as this it’s slightly surprising to find a Latvian singer in one of the lead roles but Pauls Putnins does a good job as the King, the father of the Princess. Hs English is very good and he has the appropriate vocal weight.

Ian Beadle and Felix Kemp both have two roles. As Ruffians in the opera’s first scene, the music doesn’t perhaps give them the best chance to shine. Later, though, Kemp is a firm voiced Herald, commanding attention. Beadle is stuck with the role of the Wizard. He does well but the role seems an ungrateful one. In his helpful synopsis, Jeremy Dibble says that the powers that the Wizard has given to the Princess produce the “dark side” of her character. Truth to tell, though, Stanford’s music – and Newbolt’s libretto – don’t really make us feel that the Wizard is a dark presence; to be honest, he’s more of a cartoon character.

Jeremy Dibble makes much of Stanford’s skilful orchestration in this score and he’s right to do so. The noble prelude to Act I is a fine piece of writing, for example, and there’s skilful writing and scoring in the Goblins’ Dance in Act III, even if at 9 minutes in length the episode seems far too long, holding up the action significantly. I imagine that the size of the New Sussex Opera Orchestra is driven by budgetary considerations; this no doubt explains the fairly small string section (5/4/3/3/2). Actually, that may be fairly authentic in terms of the size of pit orchestra Stanford might have expected had a staging taken place in his lifetime. Unfortunately, the string section does sound a bit undernourished – through no fault of the players – and at times the brass, whose playing is not infallible, are rather dominant. That reservation aside, the orchestra makes a spirited contribution and responds well to Toby Purser’s direction. Purser seems to have the measure of the score. His conducting has vitality and he invests the music with energy without forcing the pace. He’s also responsive to the more lyrical episodes in the score, not least the touching ending where the Travelling Companion takes his leave of John and his Princess. The last word is left to the orchestra, which brings the curtain down with a quiet, dignified little postlude.

The Travelling Companion has been well recorded by Ben Connellan; the sound is clear without being oppressively close. You will hear occasional stage noises, which is fine in a live semi-staged performance, but the audience is commendably quiet until they break into enthusiastic applause at the end. As usual with a SOMM release, the standard of the documentation is high. Jeremy Dibble contributes an excellent essay about the opera and the background to it and he’s also written a useful synopsis. A full libretto is also provided, all set out in a refreshingly clear font.

I wish I could give an unequivocal welcome to The Travelling Companion but, despite my admiration for Stanford as a composer, the score seems to me to have weaknesses. That said, it’s very valuable to have one of his operas on CD because that expands our knowledge and understanding of this significant British composer. The performance itself has some frailties which, as with the music itself, are perhaps more apparent under the scrutiny of CD than might have been the case in live performance. However, I salute New Sussex Opera for their commitment and enterprise in putting on such an unfamiliar work and for performing it with such zeal. I can’t imagine that The Travelling Companion will ever achieve another recording and we may have to wait a long time for anyone to match the courage of New Sussex Opera or SOMM Recordings in issuing another Stanford opera on disc. Therefore, this is a release that Stanford admirers need to hear

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ Nick Barnard

Information received

In my review I wondered if there had been any post-war productions of The Travelling Companion. My colleague, Christopher Howell subsequently shared theough our Message Board the information that in 1967  the John Lewis Partnership Music Society put on four staged performances of the opera. These were conducted by James Robertson who also conducted a performance with the Chelsea Opera Group in the same year. Christopher also discovered that the same John Lewis company presented another Stanford opera - Shamus O'Brien - in 1971

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