United Kingdom Rutland Boughton, The Immortal Hour: Soloists and Instrumental Ensemble / Inga Davis-Rutter (conductor), Finborough Theatre, London, 11.08.2014 (RB)
Michelle Cornelius – Etain
Stiofàn O’Doherty – Dalua
Jeff Smyth – Eochaidh
Thomas Sutcliffe – Midir
with Matthew Crowe; Lydia Jenkins; Kate Marlais; Lee Van Geleen
Director: Benji Sperring
Designer: Bethany Wells
Lighting: Nic Farman
Make-up: Abigail Gargas
Until the premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes, just after the Second World War, the most publicly prominent British opera beyond G&S was Rutland Boughton’s music-drama, The Immortal Hour. While Grimes had to wait until the early 1960s for its landmark Decca recording, the Boughton work was born into a world where the best that could be done was a two hour long work compressed into four 78 rpm sides. Its first full recording came some seventy years later by courtesy of Hyperion. It’s now on a two-for-one set Hyperion Dyad CDD22040. The two works – Britten and Boughton – could hardly be more dissimilar: they are, after all, separated by two world wars and thirty plus years. The Britten is dramatic, tragic and dynamic and still feels fresh and modern. The Boughton concerns itself with a fantasy fairy world, is introspective, elusive, poetic, emotional, tends towards the statuesque and needs careful husbandry.
The Immortal Hour is concerned with the traffic between mortal man and fairy kin and immortals. Eochaidh is happy to be inveigled by Dalua into falling for a fairy beauty Etain. She has been made to forget her fairy origins by Dalua – a dark player of games who is an immortal but not a fairy – something between the Gods and the fairy royalty. Midir, a fairy prince, brings back Etain’s memory and the two leave as lovers while Eochaidh is left bereft.
It’s a subject not likely to engage contemporary audiences although Tolkien adeptly wove this theme into his Lord of the Rings trilogy and there is no shortage of like-minded fantasy fiction and cinema, even if quite a slice of it is based on DC Comics. It did not breed a large number of similar works although there are similarities between this work and another British opera, this time of the 1930s, George Lloyd’s Iernin recently revived. Works by Holbrooke and Bainton also point in broadly the same direction.
The Boughton work presents the fairy realm as dangerous, strange and seductive rather than English country garden prissy. This is a meld of the worlds of painter Richard Dadd, Lermontov’s Tamara and writers Algernon Blackwood, J M Barrie and William Morris. Love and the sensuous are certainly themes but so is loss. Strangely enough The Immortal Hour is not sentimental – or at least not in this production.
The story and words are taken from William Sharp (1855-1905). writing as ‘Fiona Macleod’. He was also set by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Charles Martin Loeffler and Samuel Barber as well as producing songs from Bax, Delius and, early on, by Gerald Finzi.
Finborough was certainly the epitome of intimate. This is not a large-scale enterprise; nothing to compare with the full orchestra of Lloyd’s Iernin last year and the arena and seating is small – focusing and concentrating audience attention. This was an imaginative production and not one to ruffle feathers when it came to design and costume. There have been few productions since 1914 but what we had something that feels traditional. It’s certainly not updated: no New York mafiosi or Third World mercenaries in sight; no laboured symbolism. It is more Kay Nielsen and Virgil Finlay than didactic design concept. In feel it’s not a million miles from those 1920s pictures of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Etain.
Dalua – the role sung by the composer at the Glastonbury premiere – and the fairy ‘host’ he reacts with – favour black in their costumes. There’s a real Gothic quality with whorls of black facial eye paint and sky-high hair for some. Dalua – the black fool – who is an immortal but is not of fairyland – sports eye make-up, high hair and a leather kilt. The strangeness of Dalua and later of Midir is well and truly put across in contrast with the ultimately hapless mortal king Eochaidh. Dalua is portrayed with the otherworldly fairy folk as, cavorting, at times lewdly, with the fairies, male and female. It is all vividly characterised.
The stage is adroitly used being transformed by subtle shades of lighting: blue, green, red and punctuated by five eight-foot high triangular section columns: wooden frames with translucent gauze stretched across them and open on one side. They create the suggestion of monoliths, trees, kingly courts and thrones and are moved by the cast. They also allow the cast to stand on integral platforms and in their fairy finery to press their leering and eerie faces against the gauze to watch the rest of the action onstage.
Michelle Cornelius’ Etain is wan and fey, always in a dream, even before the scheming Dalua confers forgetfulness of her fairy origins. This is done with a scarf, a head-twisting gesture and whipcrack noise worthy of a broken neck murder in a Hollywood Navy Seals film. The effect returns when the similarly calculating Midir restores her memory in Act II. This Etain had a slender and breathy voice which at first was difficult to make out. Not everything was sung by all the main characters: there were more spoken word sections than I recalled from the Hyperion set and radio broadcast.
I keep coming back to the magnificent Dalua of Stiofàn O’Doherty whose slyness and ‘secret smiles’ – a territory beset with the dangers of seeming absurd – were most convincingly created. There was not a blink or tremor to suggest other than total absorption and concentration on this strange role. It was no fault of Jeff Smyth as the four-square Eochaidh, the only true mortal, that he came across as two dimensional. Even his cry at the end: “My dreams! My dreams! Give me my dreams!” rang grey and distant – no doubt just as intended. Still he had had his year of happiness with Etain.
Eochaidh’s other nemesis, Midir, son of the fairy king, was superbly done by the strutting and gesturing Thomas Sutcliffe. His gaze was supercharged by a lizard like left eye contact lens. Eochaidh, bound by honour as he was, should have realised something was afoot in Act II and intervened while Midir was gradually restoring Etain’s memory. However operas are not made to be credible. The famous Fairy Song was very well taken by Midir and earlier on by the chorus and by Lydia Jenkins of the fairy host. The “Ha! Ha! Ha!” chorus of the Ever-Young – always in danger of ending up sounding silly – was carried off with conviction although why the credulous Etain and Eochaidh were prepared to believe that it was the sound of an owl I do not know. The Act I Love duet between poor fated Eochaidh and Etain was a pallid thing beside Midir’s waking and wooing of the Etain in Act II. Poor Eochaidh stands not a chance as the two walk back to the supernatural delights of the Hollow Hill.
The history of performances of The Immortal Hour, as far as I have traced it, runs from the first performance at the inaugural Glastonbury Festival on 26 August 1914 through to the major season at the Regent Theatre, King’s Cross in 1922 (216 consecutive performances), a vigorous revival of 160 performances the next year and revivals in 1926 and 1932. It seems that there was a further crop in 1953 at Sadler’s Wells, After that I have traced two others. Frank Corsaro’s Bel Canto Opera gave the work at the Joan of Arc School Theatre, New York City in October and November 1985. A decade or so later there were three performances as part of the Glastonbury Arts Festival at the Strode Theatre, Street.
The Hyperion recording runs to a couple of minutes over two hours. The Finborough production lasted 90 mins including a 15 minute interval so that’s 75 minutes in performance against 120 minutes plus on Hyperion. I am not sufficiently familiar with the opera, except through the Hyperion CDs and an earlier BBC studio broadcast where the conductor was Vilem Tauský, to pinpoint the cuts. Given that the tempi adopted in this London production seemed not dissimilar cuts must have been made. Certainly the celebrations in Eochaidh’s court at the start of Act II seemed to be over quite quickly so I suspect there had been cuts there. Even so the presentation worked and a delighted audience greeted the opera with intense applause.
Other differences? There were more spoken sections where the young singer-actors dropped out of song and into speech. Financial and space exigencies must have dictated a sensationally cut-down orchestra. There is no pit at the Finborough (which is about five minutes’ walk from Earls Court Underground Station). The musicians played behind partial stage screening: one cello, piccolo/flute and clarinet. Inga Davis-Rutter conducted from the keyboard. This, by the way, gave a presence to the arpeggiation ‘under’ the Faery Song (‘How Beautiful They Are) that no harp could have matched.
The Finborough Theatre is a small venue which is too discreet for its own good. It’s on the upper floor over the Finborough Arms pub and access is through the pub. There are about fifty seats in bench form arranged in five raked rows looking down on a flat stage area with eye contact with the cast being part and parcel of the evening. It has a track record in British opera. Its website tells us that in 2006 it began the Celebrating British Music Theatre series with Leslie Stuart’s Florodora. Productions since then have included Lionel Monckton’s Our Miss Gibbs, Harold Fraser-Simson’s operetta The Maid of the Mountains, A Gilbert and Sullivan double featuring Gilbert’s play Sweethearts and Sullivan’s opera The Zoo, Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate, Sandy Wilson’s The Buccaneer, Oscar Asche’s Chu Chin Chow, G&S’s The Grand Duke, Edward German’s Merrie England and, I believe, Vaughan Williams’ Hugh The Drover.
Perhaps we could hope that Finborough will move onwards to produce Boughton’s fabled Arthurian cycle or Holbrooke’s Cauldron of Annwn. Meantime do try to catch this highly skilled and sensitive production. You can also hope that the auditorium might be a little cooler than the sweltering environment we enjoyed on Monday night.
I should add that 2014 also sees a new expanded edition of Michael Hurd’s book: “Rutland Boughton and the Glastonbury Festivals” available from 31 August 2014 from www.rutlandboughtonmusictrust.org.uk. The original Hurd book from 1962 was my initiation into the detail of Boughton’s life and music. At the Assembly Rooms Glastonbury 30-31 August there will be an event involving talks, a song recital and a chamber concert all with Boughton and his circle as the primary focus. For details and/or tickets, contact Organiser Ian R Boughton at email@example.com or telephone 01462 434318.
The Immortal Hour season continues on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays (matinees): 12, 17, 18, 19, 24, 25, 26 August 2014. Details:0844 847 1652; www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk