Wednesday, 26 September 2012

A Village Romeo and Juliet - New London Orchestra

Woodcut illustration (1919) of the young lovers from Gottfried Keller's original story, which became Delius's opera A Village Romeo and Juliet
Woodcut illustration (1919) of the young lovers
from Keller's
 original story,
which became Delius's opera 
 
Delius's opera A Village Romeo and Juliet was the composer's fourth opera, written in 1900-1901, and is generally regarded as the composer's finest opera. The celebrations this year for the 150th anniversary of Delius's birth have not, alas, brought forth many productions of his operas in the UK. To see A Village Romeo and Juliet staged, opera lovers will have to travel to Wexford where they perform the opera this autumn. But Ronald Corp and his New London Orchestra brought the work to London in concert form on 25 September at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, thus giving us a chance to experience it live.


One of the commonly stated reasons for the lack of performances of the opera is that Delius was rather profligate in his use of different locations for the work. In a piece lasting under two hours there are six very different, rather cinematic locations and in fact a rather successful film has been made of the piece, based on Sir Charles Mackerras's recording. Nowadays far more intractable works are staged and the scenario would seem no real reason for preventing staged performance. Rather damaging perhaps is the composer's profligate use of singers. Whilst Sali, Vreli and the Dark Fiddler are the main roles, the opera has around 20 named roles and even with doubling the New London Orchestra needed some 12 soloists, many singing rather small roles.

But the structure of the piece surely mitigates against it as well. Effectively Delius wrote six interlinked tone poems, which involve voices - sometimes. The scenes with the soloists are linked via long orchestral interludes and what action there is can be held up whilst Delius meditates in the orchestra on what has gone on. The result, for lover's of Delius's music, can be glorious, but for an ordinary opera goer wandering in off the street the opera can seem static, lugubrious and rather soporific.

A further problem is the issue of the change of voice types in our post-Callas, louden-lots age. Mature sopranos and tenors rarely have beautifully focussed instruments, like Isobel Baillie, which would enable them to incarnate two young people and cope with Delius's orchestra. Because Delius wrote the work for a big orchestra (triple woodwind, six horns, plenty of brass) and he uses this in a very lush sound. Over which, the voices have to float effortlessly; it is no surprise that the piece has had a lively life in the recording studio.

Ronald Corp and the New London Orchestra clearly revelled in Delius's textures and from a purely orchestral point of view their performance of A Village Romeo and Juliet was glorious, both in technical terms and in terms of the way they conveyed Delius's style. But doing large scale works in concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall can be tricky and the conductor needs to be very sensitive to balance issues. Corp seemed to make no such concessions, so that the singers were left to cope as they could. Happily neither Anna Devin (Vreli) nor Joshua Ellicott (Sali) forced their tone, so that they both sounded rapturously lyrical, but the drawback was that we struggled to hear them at times.

Devin made a glorious Vreli, giving us acres of lyrical line and letting Delius's rapture flow. She was well partnered by Ellicott, who came to the role as a late replacement. Ellicott was similarly attuned to the sense of line necessary in the role and the pair made lovely lovers. Though their's were the largest roles, there was hardly any characterisation necessary, Delius leaves all to the orchestra.

Rather luxurious casting were Christopher Maltman and Andrew Shore in the roles of the young couples fathers. Maltman and Shore made sure that their quarrel received maximum dramatic impact. This quarrel and Sali's felling of Vreli's father with a stone are the only two dramatic moments in the opera and are, frankly, rather embarrassingly stagey. Still, Maltman and Shore ensured that we heard every note and that music was delivered with drama and commitment.

David Wilson-Johnson was the Dark Fiddler, a strange vagabond like figure who crops up repeatedly during the opera. Wilson-Johnson gave a beautifully rounded and well balanced performance, clearly relishing the role's oddity and able to flesh out the mental background. You felt that, perhaps, it was a role that he might have played on stage.

Two singers from the New London Children's Choir, Sarah Young and Alex Karlsson, sang the young Vreli and Sali in scene one, both sweet toned, they struggled to be heard above the luxuriance of Delius's string textures.

Six young singers (Robyn Allegra Parton, Nathalie Chalkley, Chloe de Backer, Julian Forbes, Alex Ashworth, Alistair Ollerenshaw) played, between them 18 small roles in the final two scenes, enthusiastically encompassing fair-ground barkers, local gossips, vagabonds and barge-men.

It was when Forbes, Ashworth and Ollerenshaw started singing the off stage barge-men's song at the start of the final scene, that the piece really took off as dramatic opera. As Devin and Ellicott sang their rapturous final duet, Delius's sound-world really came into focus as he balance the various elements of orchestra, singers and off-stage barge-men. It was a moving conclusion and one which made you understand why people make the effort to stage the opera.

Thanks in part to the balance issues, the singers diction was patchy and without a libretto to follow or surtitles, it was often difficult to apprehend what was being sung about. Devin was, perhaps, the most successful at getting her words across.

The London Chorus had relatively little to do, but entered into the spirit of things quite enthusiastically, though their singing was a little too unfocussed and hollow toned.

The New London Orchestra under Corp brought out the beauties of Delius's score, not just the Walk to the Paradise Garden but all the other orchestral passages as well.

I am still curious to see how A Village Romeo and Juliet  would work in the theatre, but the performance from the New London Orchestra did not leave me with the feeling that the work will be taken up by opera companies very soon.


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