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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Perfect Fool (1923)
An Opera in One Act.
Libretto by the composer
The Wizard – Richard Golding (bass); The Mother – Pamela Bowden (contralto); Her Son, The Fool - Walter Plinge (speaking part); Three Girls – Alison Hargan, Barbara Platt, Lesley Rooke (sopranos); The Princess – Margaret Neville (soprano); The Troubadour – John Mitchinson (tenor); The Traveller – David Read (bass); A Peasant – Ronald Harvi (speaking part); Narrator – George Hagan.
BBC Northern Singers (chorus-master, Stephen Wilkinson)
BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Charles Groves
BBC Studio recording, broadcast 7 May 1967
Mono ADD
LYRITA REAM 1143 [62:24]

As my MusicWeb International colleague, Rob Barnett points out in his characteristically thorough booklet essay, Holst composed operas at regular intervals throughout his career. Indeed, in addition to The Perfect Fool, Rob lists another eleven operas, one of which was left incomplete; these were penned between 1892 and 1934. Most of these are entirely forgotten now. To the best of my knowledge, only three of them, Savitri (1916), At The Boar’s Head (1924) and The Tale of the Wandering Scholar (1934) have ever been recorded and it is only Savitri that retains a toehold in the repertoire nowadays.

There’s one crucial thing to remember as you listen to the opera – and, indeed, to this performance. The libretto includes an injunction by the composer which reads in part “The author asks that the spirit of high comedy shall be maintained throughout”.

Holst wrote his own libretto which included quite a lot of spoken material, though I believe an amount of the spoken dialogue was cut for this particular performance. The cast includes two speaking roles: a Peasant, who appears as the opera reaches its climax to warn – in a highly accented Welsh voice – of the approach of the fires that are about to engulf the Princess’s kingdom; and the Fool himself, though his contribution to the entire proceedings is restricted to a single word near the end. This performance also includes a linking narration which I suspect may have been added for this production. George Hagan delivers this in the perfectly modulated BBC pronunciation of the era. The broadcast was produced by Lionel Salter and his production makes up for the lack of a visual dimension. That said, I could have done without all the snoring in which The Fool engages early on in the opera.

The plot is pure hokum. The Wizard has a magic potion. This, he knows, will make the man who drinks it irresistible to the beautiful Princess, who will then marry him. Unfortunately for the Wizard, he encounters the Fool (who he doesn’t actually see) and, more importantly, the Fool’s mother. She contrives to get her son to drink the potion and tricks the Wizard into drinking water instead. When the Wizard, fortified, as he thinks, by the potion, seeks to impress the Princess she contemptuously rejects him and he takes himself off, vowing to avenge himself by visiting death and destruction on all concerned. Meanwhile, the Mother has shown her son to the Princess who, thanks to the effects of the potion, is instantly smitten. Just as we seem to be heading for a happy ending, the terrified Peasant arrives, warning of the approach of hellish fires and the Wizard. The Mother manages to rouse her son, the Fool, from his seemingly perpetual slumbers. By his look the Fool destroys the Wizard and his fiery hellish allies and all ends well.

The ballet music that Holst extracted as a concert item is one of his most familiar orchestral works. Until receiving this CD for review, the ballet music was all that I knew of The Perfect Fool. I had imagined that the ballet occurs midway through the opera, a lazy assumption made on the basis that this is the position that most operatic ballets occupy. I was wrong. We hear the three dances right at the start of the opera though in this, the original version, you will hear incantations by The Wizard, partly sung, partly spoken, at the start of each dance. Motifs from the three dances – of the Spirits of Earth, Water and Fire – crop up throughout the opera.

I have to say that in all honesty the opera peaks early: there’s nothing in the music that follows the three Dances that match them for quality, though the Princess has some charming music and the Verdi and Wagner parodies that Holst invented for the Troubadour and the Traveller are amusing and clever. By far the most interesting element in the score is the writing for the orchestra and the BBC Northern plays Holst’s music very well. The chorus music is less even: when the chorus are in ‘panic mode’ while the Wizard and his fiery allies approach their music is far too mild: they don’t sound remotely frightened, though the choral writing eventually becomes a bit more intense. I don’t blame the singers for this lack of intensity: the fault lies with Holst. Incidentally, it’s good to hear the BBC Northern Singers, trained by the late Stephen Wilkinson; they’re on good form.

Initially, I didn’t think I was going to like Richard Golding as the Wizard. He sounds rather like a pantomime villain, especially when declaiming some of his spoken lines. However, a bit later when he rehearses to Pamela Bowden the wooing song that he plans to sing to the Princess he hams things up most effectively. Pamela Bowden is a notable Mother. She sings very well indeed – in her first appearance she sings with great expression – and she’s very convincingly in character. Margaret Neville, as the Princess, sings attractively. John Mitchinson is cast as the Troubadour. When he makes his entrance, he saunters in, singing as though he were taking part in a G&S production. His main aria is a clever Verdian pastiche and Mitchinson has the vocal resources to deliver Holst’s satire most effectively. He loses his singing ‘contest’ with Margaret Neville and the Princess sends this distinguished tenor (in real life) away with a flea in his ear, telling him to “Go home and learn to sing better”. That made me smile. David Read is suitably imposing as The Traveller and this time it’s Wagner who comes in for a touch of accurately directed Holstian satire.

Presiding over everything is Charles Groves, at that time the Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and not yet knighted. He ensures that the music is full of life. There’s plenty of sparkle in the performance and Groves handles the charming episodes, usually involving the Princess, affectionately.

The notes include some illuminating comments written by Imogen Holst at the time of this broadcast. She recalls that the audience at the 1923 premiere were “bewildered”. She explains that no programme notes were provided and “I can remember their puzzled expressions as they wondered whether they ought to laugh, or whether they were supposed to recognise some deep, symbolic meaning in the story”. Thanks to Rob Barnett’s first-class notes, we who hear the opera now have no such problems: we are left in no doubt that Holst intended The Perfect Fool as an entertainment pure and simple. Perhaps the most telling quote, though, is Imogen’s remark: “There is a lot of good music locked up in this impossible framework”. She hits the nail fairly and squarely on the head there.

Rob Barnett tells us that the BBC mounted another performance of the opera in 1995, with Vernon Handley conducting a strong cast. I wonder how long it will be before anyone else puts on a performance. It’s hard to envisage a professional production or even a new broadcast. As for another recording, I suspect the chances are vanishingly small. So, those intrigued to explore beyond the ballet music would be well advised to invest in this Lyrita release. It’s a very good performance, which makes one tolerant towards the work’s weaknesses. The performance is captured in good BBC studio sound, which was recorded expertly off-air by Richard Itter; his work has transferred well to CD. Lyrita have paid Holst the compliment of providing top class documentation.

This is probably the only chance you’ll ever have to hear The Perfect Fool on CD, so if you’re curious, don’t hesitate.

John Quinn

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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