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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
The Travelling Companion – opera in four acts, Op. 146 (1916, premièred 1925)
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
Full sung libretto in booklet

As a longtime admirer of Stanford’s music, it is indeed gratifying to be able to hear on record one of his operas, an event that had me wondering if it would ever happen. Released on the Somm’s label Céleste series, this is the live recording of Stanford’s final opera The Travelling Companion, performed by New Sussex Opera. The opera has four acts and Stanford wrote his music to a libretto by Sir Henry Newbolt expanded from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale.

A relatively experienced opera conductor Stanford knew the genre well, notably by conducting Royal College of Music productions. He conducted performances of much of the standard repertoire of the time mainly Austro/German, some Italian and French operas, as well as some of his own operas, including Much Ado about Nothing and Seamus O’Brien. Stanford was a passionate opera lover from his boyhood years in Dublin and over nearly forty years wrote nine complete operas together with one left incomplete. Sometime around 1911, at the behest of the Irish baritone Harry Plunket Greene (Hubert Parry’s son-in-law) Stanford decided to write an opera on the subject of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Travelling Companion that was first published in 1835. Stanford, who’d had previously set Newbolt text with Songs of the Sea and Songs of the Fleet, decided to use the renowned writer as his librettist for this new opera project. Both libretto and music were completed in 1916. This was a significant period for Stanford, suffering profound distress from the terrible events of the First World War, as his own son Guy was on active service on the Western Front.

Stanford died in 1924 without seeing a staging of The Travelling Companion although it was eventually premièred in full by an amateur company at the David Lewis Theatre, Liverpool, in 1925. The professional première was given the next year at Bristol. Completed only three years after the ground-breaking première of The Rite of Spring, in Paris, I guess it comes as no surprise that The Travelling Companion, despite a few stagings, didn’t gain a place in the repertoire. Music taste had moved on. I see Stanford’s Edwardian opera and his reputation as reflecting the dynamic of a bygone age. Furthermore, Newbolt was not an experienced opera librettist and the dramatization has been disparaged for its ‘weak characterisation’. With its tale involving a Princess who can only be married if her suitor, under pain of death, solves a riddle, one is reminded of Puccini’s Turandot which was written about eight years later. Yet in truth The Travelling Companion suggests to me far more, both musically and dramatically, of Weber’s Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter) from almost a century earlier together with a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan thrown in.

Giving its inaugural production back in 1978 New Sussex Opera is a small community-based opera company using professional and amateur performers. With an aim of staging hidden gems, the company has presented several UK premieres. This world première recording of The Travelling Companion follows a touring production of a revival by New Sussex Opera directed by Paul Higgins given in November and December 2018. Some commentators have expressed opinions that The Travelling Companion fails to make an impression, yet I find this a quite memorable opera and enjoyed the recording of this New Sussex Opera performance from start to finish. Clearly relishing the part of protagonist John, tenor David Horton is in enthusiastic bright voice giving a most committed performance. Best of all is Julien Van Mellaerts as the Travelling Companion providing an engaging performance, singing attractively, revealing his smooth and warm baritone. The Princess is Kate Valentine singing committedly with a rather unrelating gusto that can be wearing, leaving me requiring a more nuanced tone production. Bass-baritone Pauls Putnins takes the part of the King, displaying an imposing voice that grabs the attention. As the two Ruffians, Wizard and Herald, baritones Ian Beadle and Felix Kemp make as much as they can with these minor roles and seem to enjoy every second.

Under the baton of music director Toby Purser the New Sussex Opera Orchestra, thirty-four strong here, plays well despite some occasional lack of focus yet overridingly one senses its engagement and joy of discovery with The Travelling Companion. Numbering almost forty singers the New Sussex Opera Chorus is committed in a generally satisfying performance although its ensemble is not always ideal. At Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, the engineering team for Somm delivers satisfying sound quality that has acceptable clarity and balance. On this live recording there is very little extraneous noise and the applause at the conclusion has been retained. Stanford’s biographer Jeremy Dibble provides an informative essay in the booklet, which helpfully also contains a synopsis together with the full sung libretto.

This world première recording of Stanford’s The Travelling Companion on Somm is both entertaining and engaging. I’ve already played the album several times.

Michael Cookson

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