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Sir Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Nelson - Opera in Three Acts, Op 41 (1954)
Libretto by Alan Pryce-Jones
Admiral Lord Nelson – David Johnston (tenor); Lady Emma Hamilton – Eiddwen Harrhy (soprano); Sir William Hamilton – Brian Rayner Cook (baritone); Mrs Cadogan, Emma’s mother – Elizabeth Bainbridge (mezzo-soprano); Madame Serafin, a fortune-teller – Mary Thomas (mezzo soprano); Lady Hamilton – Margaret Kingsley (mezzo soprano); Flag Captain Hardy – Richard Angas (bass); Admiral Lord Minto – Eric Shilling (baritone); Naval surgeon – Richard Jackson (baritone); Wounded man – Francis Egerton (tenor)
BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Elgar Howarth
BBC Studio recording, broadcast 23 October 1983. ADD stereo
Libretto included
LYRITA SRCD2392 [64:55 + 65:32]

This important issue brings to the catalogue for the first time, I think, the first and largest scale of Lennox Berkeley’s four operas. Lyrita here give us a stereo off-air recording which was made on his own high-quality equipment by Richard Itter.

The extensive booklet essay has been written by my MusicWeb colleague, Rob Barnett and I hope it won’t be considered a conflict of interest for me to say that it is excellent. Rob’s detailed explanation of the background to the opera is an absorbing read and I will draw upon it in giving a very brief outline now. One thing which I wasn’t aware of was the direct link which Berkeley had with one of the main protagonists in the Nelson story: he came from a Royal Navy lineage and a daughter of his great-great-grandfather, who himself attained the rank of Rear Admiral, married Nelson’s subordinate, Captain Hardy. Rob also relates that in 1950, while he was writing Nelson, Berkeley was invited to be a guest of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet on its annual spring cruise which took them through the very waters in which the Battle of Trafalgar had been fought in 1805.

Berkeley began work on Nelson in 1949; his librettist was the literary critic and author, Alan Pryce-Jones (1908-2000) with whom he had first explored the possibility of an operatic collaboration as far back as 1932. It’s not entirely clear when Berkeley finished the score but it was entered (unsuccessfully) for a British Opera competition organised by the Arts Council in connection with the 1951 Festival of Britain. A concert premiere (with piano accompaniment) was mounted by the English Opera Group in 1954, on which occasion Peter Pears took the title role. The first staged performance took place later in 1954 at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Judging by contemporary press comments quoted in Rob Barnett’s essay, the opera met with a mixed, but by no means hostile, reception from the critics. No further stagings after the 1954/55 season are mentioned in the booklet. The present performance was put on, as a studio recording, by the BBC in the year that Berkeley celebrated his 80th birthday. Thereafter, there was a full concert performance (with orchestra) by the Chelsea Opera Group in 1988 and that appears to be the work’s last outing to date. So, opportunities to hear it have been limited to say the least, which adds to the importance of this release.

Briefly, this is the plot. Act I takes place in Naples in 1798. The British Ambassador, Sir William Hamilton, has organised a reception for Nelson, the victor at the recent Battle of the Nile. Nelson arrives, making a very unobtrusive entrance among all the excitement, and encounters Lady Emma Hamilton, the Ambassador’s wife. Both are smitten. Act II, scene 1 takes place in 1800. Lady Nelson reproaches her husband over his affair with Emma and there follows a series of heated rows into which Captain Hardy and Mrs Cadogan, Emma’s mother, are also drawn. In the Act’s second scene, events have moved on to 1805. Lord Minto, a senior admiral, discusses Nelson’s conduct with Hardy. The scandal of the affair with Emma is deeply worrying to Minto and he makes his feelings plain to Nelson when the latter arrives. Questioned by Minto as to where Nelson’s priorities lie – with his lover or his duty as a naval officer – Nelson asserts that he will never neglect his duty, though it’s clear he is greatly torn between duty and Emma. At the end of the Act, he receives orders to sail against the French; Trafalgar is just weeks away. In Act III we first see the bustle at Portsmouth as HMS Victory is made ready to sail. There is one last, highly charged meeting between Nelson and Emma. An orchestral interlude acts as a bridge to scene 2, which depicts the last moments of the battle of Trafalgar and the fatal wounding of Nelson. After his death, a second orchestral passage segues seamlessly into the final scene in which Hardy breaks the news to Emma. At first, she is distraught but then her resolve stiffens and, in Rob Barnett’s words, “she finds the resolve to make her life a dazzling beacon endlessly proclaiming her love for Nelson”.

I’d not heard this opera before and such knowledge as I have of Berkeley’s orchestral and vocal music did not prepare me for what I heard in Nelson. Rob Barnett justly observes that after the 1950s “an austerity entered [Berkeley’s] music”. But, as he says, there’s none of that austerity in this opera. Instead, what we have is a lyrical Grand Opera. The level of melodic invention is very high, the harmonic language is warmly passionate and the orchestration teems with illustrative detail. I don’t know what the orchestral forces are but clearly, they are substantial. This is an opera which, even when only heard, makes a very direct appeal to the audience; I should expect that the appeal would be much greater in a sympathetic stage production. Some of the contemporary critical comments quoted in the booklet take issue with the libretto, suggesting it doesn’t always make the most of dramatic possibilities; I think there’s something in that. On the other hand, the characters of the two lovers are sympathetically drawn, especially in the music, even if the text is rather stilted at times. With the exception of Mrs Cadogan, the subsidiary characters make less of a mark. Sir William Hamilton is a rather stiff, formal character; but that, of course, is presumably why Emma Hamilton so readily lost her heart to Nelson, the feted hero and man of action. The greatest problem I have is with Captain Hardy. I wonder if Berkeley miscalculated in writing this role for a bass. The impression given is of a lugubrious, rather dour man. Perhaps that impression is enhanced by Richard Angas’s cavernous voice, but Hardy doesn’t emerge as a man of action. I wonder whether the character might have emerged in a different light had Berkeley chosen to write for a baritone. Overall, though, the opera makes a strong impression: Berkeley compels our attention with his writing, even at those points where Pryce-Jones’ libretto sags. I was especially impressed with the sensitive, poignant handling of Nelson’s death scene.

The performance is a strong one. David Johnston offers a convincing portrayal in the title role. As a matter of subjective taste, I find his tone somewhat narrow, even pinched at times, but other listeners may not have the same reservation. Johnston certainly puts across Nelson’s passionate feelings for Emma and also the great dilemma he faces between duty and love. He sings Nelson’s set-piece arias well and I admired the well-judged pathos he brings to the death scene. Richard Angas is a heavyweight presence as Hardy and I’m not entirely sure his large voice, which has something of an edge to the tone, is quite right for the role. However, he’s secure at all times. I like Elizabeth Bainbridge’s lively and characterful portrayal of Mrs Cadogan. Brian Rayner Cook brings correctness and formality to the role of Sir William Hamilton; that’s just what is needed. Margaret Kingsley is excellent as the wronged Lady Nelson. Pride of place, though, goes to Eiddwen Harrhy who gives a rounded portrayal of Emma and who is equal to the many demands of this big role. Technically, her singing is always completely secure and I got a lot of enjoyment from the sound of her voice and from the degree of engagement she brings to the role. The smaller roles are all taken reliably and I was interested to see that in Act III, scene 2, a cameo role as one of a trio of sailors is taken by Stephen Varcoe.

As I indicated earlier, the orchestral scoring is consistently full of interest. The BBC Symphony Orchestra plays with warmth or incisiveness, depending on the requirements of the music at any one time. The BBC Singers do a very good job as the chorus. Elgar Howarth’s conducting is taut and full of energy. He brings out the drama strongly and also ensures that the many lyrical passages receive their full due.

Lyrita provide the full libretto – in a separate booklet. That’s extremely helpful because although the singers’ diction is generally good there were some passages where Berkeley’s ensemble writing for solo voices became somewhat complex. One such example is the vigorously contrapuntal sextet towards the end of Act II, scene 1; here, it’s hard enough to distinguish what thoughts the various characters are articulating, even when following the text; for a theatre audience the task would be much harder. That’s not the only such occurrence. Though no indication is given in the documentation, I wondered, from following the libretto, if a couple of cuts were made in this performance. We seem to be missing a section in Act I just before the brief appearance of Madame Serafin; the passage (pages 14-16 of the printed libretto) is mainly an aria for Nelson. Just a little further on in the same Act, I think there’s a smaller cut (pages 20-21), mainly involving Sir William.

The sound is jolly good, especially when you consider that the recording was made off-air. True, it’s clearly a studio performance, but all the voices are very clearly heard and there’s no lack of orchestral detail either. As I’ve already indicated, the documentation is first class, as one has come to expect with Lyrita.

So, what is my verdict on Nelson; is its neglect justified? It does have weaknesses, but it also has a lot going for it. The music is strong and Berkeley displays the ability not only to write dramatically but also to do so on a large canvass. This may have been his first opera but it is the work of a composer who, from the outset, wrote with assurance for the operatic stage. It’s true that Nelson doesn’t have the intensity of, say, Peter Grimes or Billy Budd but, of course, the subject matter, though maritime, is very different; this is a love story and romantic, lyrical music was wholly appropriate. I suppose the trouble was that Nelson was eclipsed by the operatic genius of Britten. It would only be possible to judge it properly in the context of a sympathetic staging and the prospect of that happening is probably remote. However, the release of this fine and very committed studio recording will make the work better known and, as such, it can only help Nelson’s cause.

Chapeau, then, to Lyrita for issuing this performance which will surely be a mandatory purchase for all admirers of Lennox Berkeley’s music. For Berkeley fans the good news doesn’t end there. At the end of Lyrita’s booklet we find an announcement that in late 2021 they plan to issue a three-disc set containing BBC broadcasts, aired between 1966 and 1968, of Berkeley’s three one-Act operas: A Dinner Engagement (1954), Ruth (1956) and Castaway (1967)

John Quinn

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