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Berkeley operas REAM2144
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Sir Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
The One-Act Operas
A Dinner Engagement, Op 45 (1954) [55:31]
Ruth, Op 50 (1956) [76:24]
Castaway, Op 68 (1966-67) [56:54]
rec. 1966-1968
Full texts included
LYRITA REAM2144 [3 CDs: 188:49]

Lyrita’s release of Lennox Berkeley’s three act opera Nelson, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Elgar Howarth, alerted listeners not only to its excellence but also to the range of British operatic material Richard Itter recorded over the years. Now Lyrita releases three one-act Berkeley operas, all broadcast in a tight, three-year period between 1966-68, and all reflective of high production values, recording quality and musical intelligence.

Composed in 1954, A Dinner Engagement was Berkeley’s first opera and was to remain his most ‘Mozartian’. Premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival it has seen a number of stagings over the decades and saw its first studio recording under Richard Hickox’s direction in 2004 (thus, half a century after its première) on Chandos CHAN10219. It’s also Berkeley’s most popular opera. For the 1966 BBC studio recording, Maurice Handford directs a fine cast featuring some repertory names – Norman Lumsden, Marjory Westbury, Cynthia Glover, Pamela Bowden – and the BBC Northern Orchestra. The wry and splendid libretto is by Paul Dehen, Berkeley’s Da Ponte, who also provided the libretto for Castaway, a very different work altogether.

The plot is a simple one; can impoverished British aristos interest moneyed Ducal Continentals in their daughter. The farcical events ensure that the music fairly whizzes by. The BBC chose briefly to set the scene with a voice-over, so there is brief talk across the introductory bars, before we are introduced to all manner of paraphernalia and clatter (the scene is set in the kitchen of the Earl’s Chelsea home). The rest of the plot is best enjoyed with the music but it’s on the music that one should really concentrate. Berkeley’s orchestration is wonderfully precise and apposite. He uses a piano to support the recitatives, often with simple chords or else with more whimsical commentaries, and – even though this was his first operatic venture – he has an unerring instinct for comic business. He also infuses the music with much situational wit but also melodic beauty, drawing noticeably from the well-spring of British balladry, though without it seeming in any way gauche or pastiche-laden. The first scene is an especially fine example where eruptive comedy, nostalgia and balladry follow each other in a chain. There are operetta-like elements too, such as in the ‘hired help’ Mrs Kneebone’s turn in this scene; Pamela Bowden in prime form.

In fact, this work has a huge amount going for it, which accounts for its continued appearances – a gorgeous trio and ensembles, a rip-roaring orchestral fugal passage, a truly ‘classical’ balance between aria, stage action, recitative and spectacle and – of course – a happy ending in which love conquers all. The cast is characterful from top to bottom and really put it across and is directed with verve by Handford.

The orchestration in A Dinner Engagement is both colourful and clear. In the case of Ruth, a one act opera in three scenes composed in 1955-56, it’s much more chamber-like; two flutes, horn, piano, strings and percussion. This BBC production was again played by the BBC Northern, this time under Steuart Bedford. The librettist was Eric Crozier, a frequent collaborator with Benjamin Britten. It was common practice in broadcasts of this kind to use a narrator, here Ronald Harvi. If there’s a model for what Berkeley does in Ruth, it’s surely Poulenc. Berkeley’s scoring is more precise than in the more exuberant A Dinner Engagement and his use of the piano more pointed, not least when he employs it as an active agent in the music’s drama. The sense of flow from piano continuo accompaniment into duets and arias is also more consequential. The libretto concerns Naomi, now widowed, and with her sons dead, who returns to the neighbourhood of Bethlehem and is sustained by the loyalty of her daughter-in-law, Ruth.

It is in effect a sacred drama but one in which moments of harvest freshness mingle with deeper and darker questions. There are certainly Jewish orchestral cadences as well as, to me at least, moments when Berkeley’s use of the French horn sounds very like that of his friend Britten. That he can draw such precision of colour is remarkable and it is a major achievement of this broadcast that the chorus, which has a fair bit to do, is well balanced, and doesn’t over-part ensemble. What impresses so much in Ruth is the music’s emotive poise between rapture, romance and loss, the whole ending in a remarkable passage of sublimated vocal ecstasy. Alfreda Hodgson takes the titular role with compelling authority and sensitivity, Elisabeth Robinson assumes the role of Naomi with great insight and vocal strength. Peter Pears is the landowner Boaz whose scenes with Ruth are one sure highlight among many – were highlight not so inept a word for this cohesive, moving work. In modern times it too has been recorded by that great Berkeley champion, Richard Hickox (Chandos CHAN10301 – see review).

The last of the three operas in this 3-CD set is Castaway. The libretto was again written by Paul Dehen and intended as a companion piece to A Dinner Engagement, for which of course he had also written the libretto. In its premiere though, it was yoked to Walton’s The Bear, another work for which he wrote the sung text. The two Berkeley-Dehen operas finally appeared together years later in 1974.

Castaway is taken from the Homeric story in which Odysseus is washed up on a Mediterranean island and meets Princess Nausicaa who duly falls in love with him. Due to protocol, she cannot ask his name until she has invited him to dine at her palace, which she does, and he then resolves to sail to Ithaca to re-join his wife, Penelope.

There are clear dramatic tensions evident in even so basic an outline as this; love and loyalty, staying and going, acceptance and rejection, ardour and disappointment. There are also musical tensions, as well as those deliberately embedded into the artful libretto. Is this a comedy, and if it is what kind of comedy is it? Is it a thwarted romance? Does Odysseus’ rejection of Nausicaa’s passion constitute admirable morality but poor drama?

However one sees and hears it, certain things are undeniable. The opening storm scene – shades of Peter Grimes? – is wonderfully vivid and by contrast the becalmed subsequent music, where Berkeley uses the piano like a harp or maybe even lyre, is truly evocative through his use of sonic coloration and archaism. The scene where Odysseus is discovered has certain absurdist elements, but there’s also a strongly expressive orchestral interlude that demarcates the third and fourth scenes. The English Chamber Orchestra, directed by Meredith Davies, is not quite together here. Berkeley’s choral writing is expert, often beguiling, and his use of lulling winds precise and apt. The orchestration is top drawer throughout, and so are the propulsive syncopations that drive the central panel of the final scene. His use of the lower strings as a threnodic figure is distinctive. Above all, though, the key to this work is to find its correct temperature and to ensure that the balance between extroversion, passion, melancholy and humour functions to the work’s benefit. The cast is consistently good, and the 1967 recording, made live at Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, catches brief laughter and final applause.

There are four separate booklets. Three contain full libretti of each work whilst the fourth consists of an essay by Rob Barnett that contextualizes the works and adds a raft of pertinent material adding a couple of nice photographs. Two of the works have, as noted, received outstanding modern studio recordings so that is where you should be directed first. But for those curious as to these works’ performance history, in the singers and musicians who fashioned them into life, and who perform here with such personality, then I can strongly recommend this lovingly compiled set.

Jonathan Woolf

Contents

A Dinner Engagement, Op 45 (1954) [55:31]
Norman Lumsden (bass), Marjorie Westbury (soprano), Cynthia Glover (soprano), Pamela Bowden (contralto), Johanna Peters (contralto), Derek Williamson (tenor), Edward Darling (tenor)
John Wilson (piano)/BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Maurice Handford
rec. broadcast 5 June 1966, BBC studio recording
 
Ruth, Op 50 (1956) [76:24]
Elisabeth Robinson (soprano), Soo-Bee Lee (soprano), Alfreda Hodgson (contralto), Peter Pears (tenor), Thomas Hemsley (baritone), Ronald Harvi (narrator)
BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, BBC Northern Singers/Steuart Bedford
rec. broadcast 18 August 1968, BBC studio recording
 
Castaway, Op 68 (1966-67) [56:54]
Geoffrey Chard (baritone), Patricia Clark (soprano), Jean Allister (mezzo-soprano), Patricia Blans (soprano), Verity Ann Bates (soprano), Carolyn Maia (mezzo-soprano), James Atkins (bass), Malcolm Rivers (bass), Kenneth MacDonald (tenor)
English Chamber Orchestra, English Opera Group Chorus/Meredith Davies
rec. 10 June 1967, live, Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh



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