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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) The Perfect Fool (1923)
Richard Golding (bass) – The Wizard; Pamela Bowden (contralto) – The Mother; Margaret Neville (soprano) – The Princess; John Mitchinson (tenor) – The Troubadour; David Read (bass) – The Traveller; Alison Hargan (soprano), Barbara Platt (soprano), Lesley Rooke (soprano) – Three girls; Walter Plinge (spoken role) - The Fool; Ronald Harvi (spoken role) – A Peasant; George Hagan - Narrator
BBC Northern Singers/BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Charles Groves
rec. 26 February 1967, broadcast 7 May 1967, BBC studio recording LYRITA REAM.1143 [62:24]
Holst’s dances from The Perfect Fool are amongst his most popular and enjoyable music and have been recorded numerous times, mostly in the form of the Suite, Op 39, H. 150. It’s a surprise to realise that the context for which Holst envisaged them in this work was not to intersperse them throughout this hardly-ever-performed opera but to group them together, one after the other, right at the start. Something of a case of front-loading.
MusicWeb’s Rob Barnett has written the exemplary booklet notes and reminds the reader that this work flanks two other operas, Savitri in 1916 and At the Boar’s Head (1924) and the libretto is Holst’s own, written after Clifford Bax turned down the project. And yet we are also reminded that a better precedent would be Holst’s Opera as She is Wrote, premiered at Morley College in 1918, and seldom even heard of since. It’s a deliberate parody opera with a vast orchestra in the same way that The Perfect Fool is a parody on a fairy tale theme. Cast in one act, with no overture – Holst suggested the Fugal Overture would do, if required – The Perfect Fool was premiered in a double bill with Savitri at Covent Garden in 1923 and launched with a starry cast featuring Walter Hyde, Maggie Teyte and Edna Thornton and conducted by Eugene Goossens.
Of all the critical comments cited in the booklet I think Percy Scholes gets to the heart of the matter when he writes of the work being a ‘skit on operatic weakness, and with unmistakeable parodies of the florid Italian operatic style and of Wagner…’ The composer’s daughter Imogen admired much of the work but deplored the spoken dialogue which she said sounded ‘like an end-of-term games of charades’, an effect that, she further noted, had been to a large degree mitigated by the performance under review which excised much of the troublesome dialogue.
I’m not sure rehearsing the plot will get us very far in a review of this kind: ‘a Princess who was wooed by an elderly Wizard, and an Italian troubadour and a Wagnerian Wanderer but who fell in love with an inarticulate fool who was nearly always asleep’ is the sum of the plot, in Imogen Holst’s succinct summary. This production was recorded on acetates by Richard Itter direct from its broadcast on 7 May 1967. I can add one small detail and that’s the actual date of recording, which is 26 February, a fact passed on by the producer Lionel Salter to Alan Gibbs and cited in AEF Dickinson’s book on Holst. According to that book the so-called ‘Peasant Scene’, which can be found in track 12, was reconstructed for the broadcast. I’m not sure what needed reconstruction.
The opening dances, the best music in the work, invariably overbalance things given they all appear at the start. Charles Groves directs, and his Holst studio recordings – The Hymn of Jesus, Short Festival Te Deum, Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda Group 2 and the Ode to Death – were always an index of his excellence in this repertoire, as indeed in all his recordings of British music. He finds the core of Holst’s rhythmic vivacity in the dances, those piquant cross-rhythms and jaunty use of his own instrument, the trombone, and he is just as good in the limpidity of the Spirits of the Water dance as he is in the vivid pounding, Planets-like, of the Dance of Fire, with its eventful touches of Spanishry and convulsive, well-balanced percussion.
The role of the Wizard is taken by the bass Richard Golding and you can imagine him in the The Dream of Gerontius though I see that he was active in opera and sang in a Scottish performance of George Lloyd’s John Socman and in a TV performance of Arthur Bliss’ Tobias and the Angel. Given the strange temperature of the opera, it comes as a surprise that Holst can turn in a seemingly straightforwardly fine scene – try track nine – where the words are well set and the choral role is sensible. There’s more than a whiff of G & S though in the subsequent passage, and when the Troubadour appears (John Mitchinson), Holst pokes fun at Verdian posturing allowing the Princess, the fine Margaret Neville, to pastiche the Troubadour’s own pastiche. In the twelfth track one finds another G & S chorus, Wagnerian vengeance and a stock peasant character. There’s a brief sonic cataclysm in the thirteenth track, trumpets and percussion to the fore, that shows that Holst couldn’t quite suppress his instincts for drama and in fact the orchestration throughout is always apt and colourful.
Contralto Pamela Bowden has a strong role as The Mother and all the characters, singing or speaking, acquit themselves well. In the service of what, precisely, I’m not quite sure. There are lots of operas that really aren’t operas so maybe if you think of The Perfect Fool as a pantomime-ballet-pastiche operetta rather as one thinks of Lord Berners’s The Triumph of Neptune as a ballet-pantomime-harlequinade, you won’t be far wrong and you won’t be disappointed. Full credit to Lyrita for this retrieval however, though you’ll notice a few deviations from the libretto in the actual performance. Talking of this, the notes are contained in one booklet, the libretto in another. The box artwork has been well selected. This work has never appeared in full on disc before and the archive sound quality is excellent.