Holst & Vaughan Williams’ Contrasting British Operas

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HOLST: At the Boar’s Head / Jonathan Lemalu, bass-baritone (Falstaff); Eric Barry, tenor (Prince Hal); Paweł Kołodziej, bass (Poins); Krzysztof Szumański, baritone (Bardolf);
Kathleen Reveille, mezzo (Doll Tearsheet); Gary Griffiths, baritone (Pistol); Nicole Percifield, soprano (Hostess); Mateusz Stachura, baritone (Gadshill); Warsaw Chamber Opera Sinfonietta; Łukasz Borowicz, conductor /
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Riders to the Sea / Gary Griffiths, baritone (Bartley); Nicole Percifield, soprano (Cathleen); Kathleen Reveille, mezzo (Maurya); Evanna Chiew, mezzo (Nora); Anna Fijałkowska, mezzo (The woman); Warsaw Chamber Opera Sinfonietta & Philharmonic Women’s Chamber Choir; Łukasz Borowicz, conductor / Dux 1307-08 (live: Warsaw, March 16 [Holst] & 18 [Vaughan Williams], 2016)

Here are two real oddities, British operas written just two years apart by two quite different English composers. Gustav Holst, of course, is best known for his orchestral suite The Planets, but the style and musical syntax of that masterpiece is entirely different from his usual style, of which At the Boar’s Head (1925) is a good example. Ralph Vaughan Williams, heavily influenced in his early years by the French impressionists, became more uneven as time went on, but when he wrote Riders to the Sea (1927 but not premiered until 1937), he was still an inspired composer.

The Holst opera is given its first recording here, and what strikes the ear as a bit odd is the English diction of half the cast, which is Polish (the other half is American). The singers’ Polish accents are obvious, but at least they try to sing clear English, so I give them points. To be honest, I was a bit worried about how the tenor singing Prince Hal would come off, simply because it was written for one of the most stentorian of early English tenors, Tudor Davies, whereas most modern-day British and American tenors favor a much lighter style of vocalism. As it turns out, Eric Barry doesn’t have as stentorian a voice as Davies (few did in his time besides Walter Widdop or Tom Burke), but he is strong enough in his projection and has a bright and cutting enough of a timbre to compensate. The plot, of course, revolves around the same incidents found in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 later used by Orson Welles in his classic film Chimes at Midnight. The now-paunchy Falstaff, once a good pal and familiar of Prince Hal, keeps trying to cling to him despite the fact that the latter is trying to distance himself from the pompous old windbag because he is being groomed for the throne.

Some online critics have compared this opera to Holst’s The Wandering Scholar, but to be honest I liked At the Boar’s Head much better. The music is livelier and wittier, the rhythms of the music written to exactly match the rhythm of the words, and Holst chose his libretto from Shakespeare very well and tailored it perfectly. The orchestration is sparse yet telling: he was, after all, a master of orchestration and knew exactly what he was doing. Although there are no arias, the music is most definitely melodic and tuneful. In short, it’s a thoroughly delightful work, a British equivalent of Verdi’s Falstaff, far better than any comic opera written in the past half-century. It certainly deserves a place in the repertoire of opera houses today.

For the most part the singers are splendid. Aside from Barry, we have Jonathan Lemalu as Falstaff, a singer whose voice is unsteady in sustained tones but possesses an extremely rich, deep and resonant bass voice. The bit parts, such as the inn Hostess (Nicole Percifield) and Doll Tearsheet (Kathleen Reveille), are very well cast, the latter having a fruity mezzo with a quick vibrato. As the opera progresses, you just stop evaluating the singing and even the music and just revel in its charm and humor. The talented cast is just enjoying themselves so much that you in turn enjoy them as well. In the section titled “How now! What news?”, Holst sets up a nicely complex fugue among the four voices. Yes, I can imagine that the staging for such an opera might be a little static—the scene never changes from the Boar’s Head pub—but with a little imagination and not too much Eurotrash, I’m sure it can be made quite delightful. I’d much sooner sit through a performance of this than another mind-numbing performance of Il Viaggio a Reims.

The filler, Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea, is based on a story by John Millington Synge about a woman named Maurya who has lost her father, her husband and four of her six sons to the sea. Her two daughters Nora and Cathleen hear that a body has washed up on shore and may be that of Maurya’s fifth son, Michael. Meanwhile her sixth son, Bartley, plans to go to the Galway fair to sell horses, but his mother is afraid of the sea winds and begs him not to go. He does so anyway, with Nora and Cathleen chiding their mother for sending him off with a bad word. But her prediction becomes reality; her daughters receive the clothing of the dead sailor which identifies him as Michael, and Maurya claims to have seen the ghost of Michael riding behind Bartley. In time villagers bring the body of Bartley, who somehow fell off his horse and drowned in the sea, back home. Maurya laments, “They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me.” Apparently Maurya isn’t much of a feminist…to her, her daughters are nothing.

Ironically, this work, short as it is (a little under 40 minutes), is a real masterpiece. As the liner notes point out, “Nearly all the vocal parts are a dramatic recitative, coherent with the considered rhythm of the original text. Commentators point to the kinship of the melody with Gregorian chant. The sense of the archaic is also reinforced by the very frequent doubling of voices by instruments and accompaniment in parallel fourths, at times in fourths and thirds… The tonality of Riders to the Sea is already very distant from the tonal system, yet it does not show the close kinship with English folk music we might expect from Vaughan Williams. The dissonant nature, copious oscillating semitones as well as oscillation between the major and minor scales, and the liquidity of tonal centres fit Synge’s gloomy drama perfectly well.” This is an excellent description of the music, but technically speaking the sung lines are in the tonal system. It is the orchestral accompaniment that is bitonal, and it is this musical clash that sets up the tension.

Here mezzo Reveille graduates from a supporting role to the lead role of Maurya. She has an unusual voice in that she has a very insistent vibrato, like that of the late Kathleen Ferrier, but like Ferrier’s it is at least an even vibrato. Interestingly, her low range is rich and full like Ferrier’s. More importantly, she is an expressive singer and her diction—like that of all the cast—is crystal-clear. Now, why on earth can’t we have singers like this all the time nowadays in opera recordings? Why do record companies have to hire singers who can’t sing consonants clearly? Of course, in this case the question is a rhetorical one because all of these singers can sing clear English.

Although the music does not resemble British folk music, it is not terribly far from it, either. All of the sung recitatives have a melodic contour; Vaughan Williams did not fall into the trap that Kaija Saariaho did in her most recent opera, L’Amour de Loin. Since Vaughan Williams was also a master orchestrator, his finely-sculpted lines make telling use of the winds, strings and brass, sometimes using just one section at a time. I also liked his use of a distant, wordless chorus behind Maurya when she sings about Bartley and near the end of the opera, also the way Vaughan Williams simulates the waves with broadly played cymbal washes. Near the end, Maurya has a powerful solo scene which is the closest thing to an aria in the opera.

This is a surprisingly well-done and fascinating issue. I’m not a strong advocate of most British operas by a long shot, but these two are definitely worth a listen!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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