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Berners Carrosse 8660510
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Lord BERNERS (1883-1950)
Caprice péruvien (arr. for orchestra by Constant Lambert) [9:08]
Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement (based on Prosper Mérimée’s play, sung in English, 1920/23) [69:39]
Ian Caddy (baritone): Viceroy
Alexander Oliver (tenor): Martinez
John Whitfield (tenor): Balthasar
Cynthia Buchan (soprano): La Périchole
Thomas Lawlor (bass): Thomas d’Esquival
Anthony Smith (bass): Bishop of Lima
RTÉ Sinfonietta/David Lloyd Jones (Caprice)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Cleobury (Le Carrosse )
rec. 16 August 1983, BBC Studio 1, Glasgow, Scotland (Caprice), 10 January 1995, O’Reilly Hall, Dublin, Ireland (Le Carrosse)
NAXOS 8.660510 [78:47]

I love those eccentric novels by Lord Berners – Sir Gerald Hugh Tywhitt-Wilson – for example Far from the Madding War, The Romance of a Nose and The Camel. And I love many of the paintings. We have lived for several years a few miles from Faringdon House, his estate in Oxfordshire. We saw the follies he had ordered erected there, and the iconic pink-dyed pigeons.

Lord Berners also wrote music, often highly skilful but underestimated. In the 1990s, Marco Polo issued four discs of his major works. Wisely, Naxos have brought them out at a lower price. This disc is such a reissue. The others are The Triumph of Neptune (8.555222), A Wedding Banquet plus Luna Park (8.555223), and Les Sirénes plus Cupid and Psyche (8.574370). Those are all ballet scores. Berners, fascinated by the theatre as he was, did not compose another opera after La Carrosse: too much work for too little reward, he thought.

The problem lies in the wordiness of the text. Prosper Mérimée’s play from the 1830s was never a success. Berners saw a revival in 1917, and for some reason took to it. Set in Lima, it concerns just six characters. After a bar of music, we are launched straight in: Berners saw no point in preludes or overtures. As it happens, the first track on this disc acts as prelude. It is a rendition of the Caprice péruvien, music resuscitated from the opera, mostly by Constant Lambert, which Berners thought worthy of further development. In truth, the piece is Hollywood comes to Peru with Spanish inflections, but it is a good piece.

Berners almost recognized the problem. He described this one-act opera as “in the style of a symphonic poem”. It plays without a break, and audiences were baffled by such continuity: there was no space to applaud! The opera flows in a sort of conversational arioso, with only an occasional respite. Words and sentences are always musically painted and pointed, and there is a sense of excited fluency.

And then there is the plot. The Viceroy argues with Martinez about the arrival of his new carriage, of which he is very proud. Then there is the Viceroy and the temptress. He has gout and cannot get to church. She persuades him to lend her the carriage so she can go to church. But she is responsible for various accidents and arguments to and from the church, which result in fights breaking out. The Bishop visits the Viceroy, entering hand in hand with La Périchole, the aforementioned temptress. After a “revelation of the Virgin”, she has donated the carriage to the church. It can then be used at funerals as a last consolation to the dying. The Bishop dines with La Périchole who is now clearly destined for eternal life. What a story!

The opera is dramatically portrayed, the feeling certainly helped by the excellence of the performers. As far as I can possibly judge, they could not be improved. Berners helps by never overdoing the orchestration, so that the words can be clear. Every singer also has excellent diction – they even seem to be enjoying themselves. It is worth adding, however, that no texts are supplied, although there is a perfectly good synopsis and Philip Lane’s essay. One must go online to follow the action word for word.

Gary Higginson

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