United Kingdom Delius, A Village Romeo and Juliet: Soloists, The London Chorus, The New London Orchestra, Ronald Corp (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 25.9.2012. (JPr)
Joshua Ellicott (tenor): Sali
Anna Devin (soprano): Vreli
Christopher Maltman (baritone): Manz
Andrew Shore (baritone):Marti
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone): The Dark Fiddler
It is a fact that if you repeatedly read things the less you spot the errors (I know this only too well) but printed programmes, from Bayreuth to English National Opera and now the self-produced one for The New London Orchestra’s A Village Romeo and Juliet, seem to contain more mistakes than ever before. The best here was that the orchestra ‘celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2103’ (my emphasis)! This apart, it was wonderfully enterprising of their founder and artistic director, Roland Corp, along with The Delius Trust, to allow a London audience their one and only opportunity to hear what is believed to be the composer’s best opera, in this the 150th anniversary year of his birth.
Based on a short story by Gottfried Keller, Delius completed A Village Romeo and Juliet, his fourth opera, in 1901 and apart from a staging at Sadler’s Wells in 1982 it has been almost totally neglected. Its structure is often cited as one of the reasons for the lack of performances because Delius divides the opera into six sections and has different scenarios for each of them: nowadays with the increasing use of videography this should not be a problem. Another problem is that it has a lot of – admittedly smallish – roles, needing several soloists. Even with the doubling involved this performance by the New London Orchestra needed 13 soloists. I suspect there are other problems in 2012 with this work that prevent our major companies staging it. Firstly, the main roles, Sali and Vreli (the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ of the title) and the Dark Fiddler, require larger more experienced voices than can often be found for it … or afforded. Delius’s orchestration is – to employ a currently over-used word – lush and the voices of the three principals need to have the cutting edge to overcome this.
Also, thinking from a modern perspective, I am not sure what type of work A Village Romeo and Juliet is; there are six almost stand-alone scenes, with no extended arias or duets, and the only real drama is the quarrelling between the young lovers’ fathers, Manz and Marti, over a strip of land and the blow from Sali that fells the latter. Also I could imagine Manz’s opening ‘Straight on, my plough, straight on!’ in a classic Broadway musical and a later chorus ‘Vagabonds and comrades’ seems straight from Gilbert and Sullivan. To be honest there is very little in the first five scenes that pre-empts the tragic dénouement of Sali and Vreli drowning in each other’s arms. The scenes are linked by orchestral interludes – the most famous being ‘The Walk to the Paradise Garden’ – that sound glorious but have nothing much to do with what we have seen, or will see. The musical language is often highly impressionistic and owes a lot to Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande comes to mind but that was not written till 1902) and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – this is not surprising given Delius’s admiration for these two composers.
Ronald Corp had obviously prepared his New London Orchestra extremely well and their stylish performance cannot be faulted. He luxuriated in Delius’s rich textures but was totally out-of-balance with the valiant soloists lined up either side of him who he left to their own devices. From my seat halfway back in the Queen Elizabeth Hall some fared better than others but, without a libretto to follow, too few of the English words were heard clearly. Anna Devin (Vreli) was effortlessly lyrically when a more dramatic voice seemed needed. Joshua Ellicott (Sali) sounded more of a baritone than a lyric tenor and despite some eloquent singing was required to force his top notes.
Theirs are the largest roles but Delius still does not seem to give them much character development. Two of Britain’s finest operatic baritones, Christopher Maltman and Andrew Shore, were extravagantly cast as the young couples’ fathers. Maltman and Shore made sure that their quarrel received maximum dramatic impact but it came and went in Scene One before either was fully warmed up. The equally experienced David Wilson-Johnson was the Dark Fiddler, another underwritten character, who seems to be one of the vagabonds and the rightful owner of the disputed land, and reappears throughout the opera. Wilson-Johnson did well without embodying this strange role in the way a more extrovert singer like Gideon Saks or John Tomlinson might tackle this strange role. Two singers from the New London Children’s Choir, Sarah Young and Alex Karlsson, were the young Vreli and Sali in the first scene, both well-schooled but not helped sufficiently by Roland Corp. I thought the six young singers (Robyn Allegra Parton, Nathalie Chalkley, Chloe de Backer, Julian Forbes, Alex Ashworth, Alistair Ollerenshaw) were very good near the end of the opera as they took care of all the varied small roles, including village gossips, fairground showmen, vagabonds and bargemen. The London Chorus had relatively little to do and sat through most of the earliest scenes before getting a hymn to sing just before an interval. Though enthusiastic and committed, once again, too few of their words could be discerned.
Though it begins with an evocative off-stage bargemen’s song the final scene never seems to raise the emotional stakes as much as it should and the Vreli and Sali final duet is not rapturous enough to make enough of their impending tragic ending. That said, overall it was all well worth the effort it must have taken to put on this performance of A Village Romeo and Juliet and although it doesn’t really convince as a dramatic opera there is far worse music staged by the major UK companies and this really should be given its chance.
If you want to experience A Village Romeo and Juliet in the theatre there will be a fully-staged performance at this year’s Wexford Festival
For further details of forthcoming performances by the New London Orchestra visit www.nlo.co.uk.