Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Chaucerian richness: Julian Philips' The Tale of Januarie

Guildhall School - Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - John Findon and Chorus- photo Clive Barda
Guildhall School - Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - John Findon and Chorus- photo Clive Barda
Julian Philips The Tale of Januarie; John Findon, Anna Sideris, Martin Hässler, Elizabeth Skinner, dir: Martin Lloyd-Evans, cond: Dominic Wheeler; Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 28 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A new Chaucer-based opera uses Chaucer's own language to fascinating effect

On Monday 27 February 2017, two new operas were premiered in London, a testament to the enduring liveliness of the operatic form. Rather interestingly both operas engaged with famous historical literary texts. Whilst at ENO, Ryan Wigglesworth's Shakespeare-based The Winter's Tale premiered (we will be covering that later in the week), at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Julian PhilipsThe Tale of Januarie received its first performance. Philips' new opera (his ninth), is based on The Merchant's Tale, from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and unusually, Stephen Plaice's libretto is written in Chaucer's Late Middle English. The production was directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, designed by Dick Bird with lighting by Mark Jonathan with George Edwards as Priapus, John Findon as Januarie, Daniel Mullaney as Placebo, Jake Muffett as Justinus, Daniel Shelvey as Damyan, Anna Sideris as May, Martin Hässler as Pluto, Elizabeth Skinner as Proserpina, David Ireland as Father Bruno, plus Chloe Treharne, Bianca Andrew and Jade Moffatt.

Guildhall School - Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - Daniel Shelvey - photo Clive Barda
Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - Daniel Shelvey - photo Clive Barda
The plot tells the straightforward moral tale of an elderly knight, Januarie, who decides to marry and takes a young woman, May, as his wife. She falls in love with Januarie's young servant Damyan and the two cuckold Januarie. Chaucer's plot is complicated by the presence of Pluto and Proserpina (on Earth for their annual six-month 'holiday') and they get involved. So Januarie is blinded to prevent him seeing May naked, and has the blindness removed to enable him to see her cuckolding him, but Prosperpina gives May a convincing excuse. At the end Januarie dies, still believing that May's child is his.

Within this basic framework, Philips and Plaice have woven a great many strands. The opera is keyed to the seasons, it opens with the townspeople wassailing and throughout there are celebrations and processions which mark the progression of the year. Also, Prosperpina is attended by three nymphs who reflect the coming of Spring, Summer and Autumn, before they all depart for Hades again. The figure of Priapus (complete with a wheelbarrow carrying his huge phallus) forms a sort of narrator, beginning and ending the piece.

The piece seems to be deliberately pageant like and discursive, allowing the students of the Guildhall School of Music large scope, including the use of period instruments. The various processions are accompanied by an on-stage band of flute, viola, harp, medieval fiddle, bagpipes, recorder and percussion, and at one point Damyan accompanies himself with a hurdy gurdy.

During the interval we were discussing the piece, and when he learned that I was reviewing the performance, said make sure you mention that it is great fun.
Guildhall School - Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - Anna Sideris, John Findon - photo Clive Barda
Anna Sideris, John Findon - photo Clive Barda
And fun it certainly is; the opera does not shy away from the ribaldry of Chaucer's original, so not only do we have Priapus and his phallus, but there is an extended scene for Januarie's first lovemaking to May (heard rather than seen with some lovely effects in the orchestra, with Damyan as an unwilling auditor), and another really saucy dialogue for Januarie and May as he seeks to make love to her and she rebuffs him. And of course, May has recourse to the privacy of the privy (cue farting noises from the orchestra) to read a note from Damyan, subsequently tearing it up and depositing it there. There are incidental scenes, such as the village fair in Act One (when Januarie goes looking for a wife), and the nymphs celebrate the seasons with dancing and singing.

But there is seriousness too, we grow to feel sorry for Januarie, even though his obsession and jealousy are ridiculous, and the end is very poignant as Januaries pleads unsuccessfully with Pluto to be allowed time to see his son born, and then dies still deceived. Proserpina too has an intense care for the inequality of May's position, and there are a series of dialogues between Prosperpina and Pluto, with the latter regarding the affairs of mortals as simple sport.

Guildhall School - Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - George Edwards - photo Clive Barda
George Edwards - photo Clive Barda
That said, the first half (the first two of four acts) at 80 minutes seemed a little too long. But perhaps the biggest drawback for me was the language. Plaice's libretto combines genuine Chaucer with what one might call ersatz Chaucer-ese; for a start Plaice's line lengths are far shorter than Chaucer's. To my untutored ear the cast seemed to struggle somewhat with the period pronunciation, an this seemed variable especially as the Chaucerian language seemed to go in and out of focus somewhat in Plaice's libretto.

Philips was clearly at some care to bring variety to the vocal writing, and the opera is peppered with lyrical and comic moments, an aria for Damyan as he seeks to attract a wife for Januarie, a lovely aria for Proserpina to beauty, as well as shorter character moments. The vocal writing certainly does not chug along in the unvaried arioso/recitative beloved of some contemporary operas. And Philips lines, tonal yet challenging, are deliberately varied. Yet the basic pulse of his recitative seemed rather too steady, and despite all this variety the piece felt a little too wordy (Perhaps a reflection of my being uncomfortable with the basic libretto).

Guildhall School - Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - Martin Hässler - photo Clive Barda
Martin Hässler - photo Clive Barda
The vocal writing was not always memorable per se, but the way Philips combined it with the imaginative use of the orchestra. This was large, not only the stage band but triple woodwind in the pit, yet Philips writing never felt over done, simply richly imaginative. And he had clearly thought about writing for young voices, and one of the delights of the piece was the way he thinned the textures down to just a few instruments.

Martin Lloyd-Evans's production was richly imaginative too. Dick Bird's designs were picture-book medieval with a set based around a calendar, and a central tree which moved with the seasons (bare branches to blossom to fruit to bare branches again), this was the pear tree in which May and Damyan would consummate their relationship.

Januarie is a big role and needs an heroic voice, which John Findon provided, managing a nice transition between comic lust, jealousy and poignant regret. He looked convincing too, belying his youth. Anna Sideris charmed as his youthful wife May, but also made the inequality of the marriage apparent even in the comic scenes. As her paramour, Damyan, Daniel Shelvey was handsome, charming and delightfully dim.

As Pluto and Proserpina, Martin Hässler and Elizabeth Skinner brought a seriousness of intent which made their scenes seem far more than a simple diversion, and helped to bring multi-layered depth to the work. And Skinner sang Prosperpina's aria to beauty with beautiful control.

Daniel Mullaney and Jae Muffett as Placebo and Justinus were Januarie's friends, providing a two differing voices commenting on Januarie's wife-getting activities. Chloe Treharne, Bianca Andrew and Jade Moffatt did characterful triple duty, appearing as the three delightfully lusty nymphs but also three serving maids and three townspeople, a female chorus to comment on the action. David Ireland appeared as Father Bruno, the priest who blesses the marriage. Actor George Edwards was Priapus, getting involved by chasing the nymphs (unsuccessfully) during Spring, but generally acting as observer and wry chorus.

Guildhall School - Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - chorus - photo Clive Barda
Guildhall School - Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - chorus - photo Clive Barda
I find when reviewing the performance in my mind, I keep coming back to the issue of the language and that feeling of sluggish wordiness in the dialogue sections of the opera. Perhaps this is simply my unfamiliarity with Middle English, but I could not help wondering what the effect of performing it in modern English would be. That said, the opera certainly got us talking about language which is quite remarkable for a contemporary opera.

Philips opera is clearly designed for a large company like that of a conservatoire, and I hope that it has a lively further life. I feel that a little pruning might be in order to make the first half a little tighter, but overall this was a fascinating piece. And given a tremendous performance all round from the students of the Guildhall School.

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