Lennox Berkeley’s “Nelson” Opera

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BERKELEY: Nelson / David Johnston, ten (Lord Nelson); Eiddwen Harrhy, sop (Lady Hamilton); Brian Raynor Cook, bar (Sir William Hamilton); Elizabeth Bainbridge, mezzo (Mrs. Cardogan); Mary Thomas, mezzo (Fortune Teller); Margaret Kingsley, mezzo (Lady Nelson); Richard Angas, bs (Capt. Hardy); Eric Shilling, bar (Admiral Lord Minto); Richard Jackson, bar (Surgeon); Francis Egerton, ten (Wounded man); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orch.; Elgar Howarth, cond / Lyrita SRCD.2392 (recorded live at BBC Studio, London, October 23, 1983)

Lyrita, a British label that issues a number of BBC broadcasts and recordings commercially, has come up with this oddity: Lennox Berkeley’s 1954 opera Nelson in a 1983 performance. Interestingly, the only two names I recognize in the cast listing are soprano Eiddwen Harrhy as Lady Hamilton and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bainbridge, the latter famous for her portrayal over a 20-year span as “Auntie” the brothel-keeper in Britten’s Peter Grimes. The only really poor voice in the cast was that of mezzo Margaret Kingston as Lady Nelson, and bass Richard Angas (Capt. Hardy) has a somewhat stifled-sounding one, but they are subsidiary characters.

According to the booklet, the plot of this work “draws its vitality from the relationship between Nelson and Emma Hamilton. At a time when scandal had serious repercussions. It was after all an illicit relationship defiantly conducted in Society’s open view. Its impact was heightened by the tension between love and duty.” And the really interesting thing, if the opera’s synopsis is to be believed, is that for all his spectacular successes in naval battles, Horatio Nelson was “a physically unprepossessing man, but one who exercises a magnetic spell over all who come [came] into contact with him.”

Interestingly, Berkeley had a family connection to the great Admiral. His father, the notes tell us, was a Captain in the Royal Navy, his uncle and great-grandfather being Commanders, and his three times great-grandfather had been a Rear Admiral who presided over the marriage of Nelson’s Captain Hardy.

Despite the performance date, which would indicate a digital recording, the BBC Symphony strings sounded a little harsh to me, but the singers sound wonderful and I could often actually make out the words they were singing. As for the music, it is very fine indeed. Berkeley, a composer I’ve always liked, wrote strophic but melodic lines for his characters which have, in fact, more melody to them than the sung recitatives of his good friend Britten. The orchestral writing is colorful, harmonically interesting without being abrasive on the ear, and all in all the music carries the words, and thus the drama, with more lightness and melody than in the average Britten opera. If pushed to do so, I would characterize it as a more lyrical version of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. There are also some very fine concerted passages where two or three characters sing together, and these are handled brilliantly (note, particularly, the Act II quartet with its madrigal-like writing).

Another way Berkeley’s writing differs from Britten’s is his greater use of rhythm in both the orchestral and vocal writing. Britten generally used what I would call static or even stilted rhythms and place the vocal line on a rather narrow note-range, generally less than an octave, whereas Berkeley’s music moves around quite a bit more. There is even a short but attractive arietta for Mrs. Cardogan (Bainbridge) near the end of the second track, and even Berkeley’s choral writing has inner rhythmic movement (not to mention a very imaginative use of harmony without leaning too far in the direction of modality or bitonality).

Lord Nelson’s entrance is handled dramatically by stopping all the busy motion of the music, pausing, and then allowing him to come in with a simple, unaccompanied line. David Johnston (1931-2016) didn’t have the most attractive British tenor voice I’ve ever heard—he doesn’t hold a patch on such singers as Charles Craig or John Mitchinson—but it wasn’t a thin or offensive-sounding voice like that of Ian Bostridge, either.

It would be easy to say that this opera, like Britten’s Gloriana, was just an offering to the British royalty at a time when it was politically wise to do so, but my impression is that it is really an interesting story, no less so than that of Swedish King Gustav in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera or the Doge of Venice Simon Boccanegra. It is a character study of a great historical figure, and if we don’t get quite as much out of Nelson the character as we do out of Boccanegra, we get no less than Verdi gave us of Gustav. The problem is that, by the mid-20th century when this was written, historical costume dramas had become a thing of the past. Even Britten’s Billy Budd seemed a bit dated, and that one had more “legs” from a theatrical view than Nelson. Billy’s split-second murder of the venomous Claggart made for highly dramatic theater; there is no parallel moment in Nelson. It’s pretty much a drawing-room drama, like the kind you see on Masterpiece Theater that really aren’t masterpieces. The scandal of Nelson’s open romance with another woman just doesn’t seem so shocking. There is no Alfio or Michele to get jealous and kill him for messing around with his woman.

stage pic

Stage photo from the original 1954 production of “Nelson”

Yet sometimes an opera is great for no other reason than that the composer has captured the situation presented in the libretto with perfect fidelity to the emotions and actions of the principals. This was true of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride and Britten’s Peter Grimes, and it is true of Nelson. Berkeley’s music is so beautifully wrought and dramatically concise that one enjoys every moment of it; everything falls into place perfectly from both a musical and a dramatic standpoint. Thus it is the complete package one admires, and although this cast is clearly professional and competent, it’s a shame that a few more attractive-sounding singers were either not available or unwilling to participate in this 1983 revival.

And yet, there is a subtext to the plot that is interesting, and that is how British society of the time was willing to tolerate, if not overlook, Lord Nelson’s infidelity simply because he was a brilliant Admiral who won nearly every naval battle he engaged in. And this is something that can easily be carried over to our present day, when “distinguished” public figures are forgiven for inappropriately touching women or having affairs with them so long as they produce results, whether in the arts or politics. Being highly skilled in a way that either benefits or entertains hundreds of thousands of people can, and often is, held up as an excuse for inappropriate behavior. And it is that which makes Nelson timeless, in addition to the excellent music. I found it quite believable that, when fellow-composer Richard Stoker was asked what, in his opinion, was Berkeley’s finest work, her replied, “Without doubt…Nelson…I remember it as full of melodies and ensembles written on a grand scale. It has a lengthy plot and some contrived situations, but nothing is wrong with its music, it contains some of Lennox’s finest music…”

Even so, it’s a matter of taste. There are many who do not respond well to British opera of the Holst-Berkeley school and never will, just as there are those who, like me, detest the majority of serious operas by the Bel Canto Boys (Rossini-Bellini-Donizetti). And of course, an opera is not a cantata; it must be a theatrical experience, not just a musical one. Yet I liked Nelson quite a bit and, although I may seldom listen to it again, I will indeed do so because the music is good and interesting.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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