A Rare Chance to Experience Delius’ Greatest Opera is Compromised by a Greatly Reduced Orchestration

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Delius – A Village Romeo and Juliet: Soloists, New Sussex Opera Chorus, Kantanti Ensemble / Lee Reynolds (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 28.3.2017 (AS)

The-Fair-Robert Knights
New Sussex Opera’s A Village Romeo and Juliet (c) Robert Knights

Manz – Robert Gildon
Marti – Geoffrey Moses
Young Sali – Alex Edwards
Young Vrenchen – Nell Parry
Sali – Luke Sinclair
Vrenchen – Kirsty Taylor-Stokes
The Dark Fiddler – Ian Beadle
Wild Girl – Georgia Cudby

Those of us who are passionate about the music of Delius have had a thin time of it in recent years, at least so far as live performances of the major works are concerned. The composer’s  greatest opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet, has not indeed been produced in London since 1962, the year of the composer’s birth centenary. And so the chance to hear it live now was apparently not one to be missed. But there was a snag.

In his interesting programme notes concerning this new production by New Sussex Opera, the conductor Lee Reynolds suggests that since “much of the piece is not big-gesture music, but made of more private, modest sentiments”, his own version of it with its “….reduced scoring…. will help to better-access those fragile moments, while keeping the emotional impact Delius will have wanted for the opera.”

Such an attempt to make a virtue out of economic necessity is clearly ingenuous. Delius surely didn’t score the work for a big orchestra of 110 players simply in order to rival the large-scale operas of Richard Strauss, as Reynolds suggests. (It’s interesting, however, to recall Strauss’s pre-First World War remark about Delius: “I had no idea that anyone was writing such good music as this besides myself”.) Much of the Village Romeo’s musical argument and drama are contained within the orchestra, and the lavish orchestration provides enhanced colour and atmosphere. The large ensemble produces sounds and timbres in this work that are unique – even for Delius – and are of a kind had not ever been heard before and have never been re-created.

The prospect therefore of hearing a performance of the opera with an ensemble of just 23 players was not enticing. A dilemma had to be faced. Should one take the probably once in a lifetime chance to hear the piece live, albeit in a compromised form, or rely entirely on the experience of the five varied recordings of it, all in the fully scored version, that have been issued commercially?

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I took the plunge. Things were not helped by the fact that the instrumental players were placed behind the improvised stage, with the conductor having his back to the singers and only able to keep in touch via a monitor placed high in the gallery. It was striking, in fact, that at no time did Lee Reynolds ever appear to use this electronic communication in order give a cue or indeed any sign to his singers: his attention seemed entirely to be focused on his players.

Fortunately the production had clearly been well-rehearsed, and the Cadogan Hall performance was well-bedded in: there had been a first night at the Town Hall, Lewes and a second performance at the E M Forster Theatre at Tonbridge (those interested can catch two further performances – at the Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks, on Friday and at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, on Sunday). Given the need to transport the stage effects from one venue to another, it would be unfair to criticise the “strip-downed” production.

It has to be said that Reynolds’s reduced scoring has been achieved with no little skill: as his sympathetic conducting also showed, he has a real feeling for this music. The famous “Walk to the Paradise Garden” came off remarkably well in the circumstances. But of course much was inevitably lost in the transcription, and the singers, in front of the players, tended to overwhelm the instrumental sound at climactic points: some of these should have been managed at a lower volume level. A particular culprit was the Kirsty Taylor-Stokes, whose lusty, somewhat piercing soprano and energetic acting conveyed quite the wrong impression as Vrenchen, who should be portrayed as a more hesitant, more quietly passionate lover. As The Dark Fiddler (though his violin was nowhere to be seen) Ian Beadle gave a fine account of the role, beautifully sung and vividly acted. Elsewhere some of the acting was a rather wooden. Geoffrey Moses sang well as Marti, and Robert Gildon was at least adequate in the role of Manz. Luke Sinclair’s portrayal of Sali was sympathetic, though sometimes he too let the decibels rise too willingly. It was a pity that the 11-year-old Alex Edwards, who sang out engagingly as Young Sali, could not have been partnered by a younger Young Vrenchen than the 17-year-old Nell Parry. Though she sang nicely, her voice was too developed and not well-matched with the young treble soloist.

All in all, it was a strange experience, since what was missing in the performance had to be augmented by memories of the recordings in order to bring everything out. Given these rather curious conditions it was a moving experience to hear the opera live, but I doubt if anyone who had not heard the music before gained an adequate impression of it. Some luminaries of the English music scene were present, including two well-known conductors, a prominent composer and various writers of authority, but the audience was sadly small in numbers.

Alan Sanders

5 thoughts on “A Rare Chance to Experience Delius’ Greatest Opera is Compromised by a Greatly Reduced Orchestration”

  1. As a music staff member of a major UK opera house who was present at this performance, I feel compelled to offer some factual corrections to this article, principally the suggestion that Lee Reynolds left his cast of singers unattended to. There was a monitor camera within the string section, in front of the rostrum, into which I observed Reynolds constantly feeding cues to his singers. The performance suggested to me that Reynolds and the singers were in very good contact, and that he and orchestra were sensitively accompanying the voices. To suggest that a clearly gifted young conductor is not capable of supporting singers is quite a damaging criticism to make when it isn’t backed up by facts, so you’ll excuse me for pointing this error out. The fact that such a fluid score was, as you point out, well rehearsed enough to survive the unusual layout is not fortunate but obviously the product of hard work and good rehearsing!

    Also, I counted 24 players…

  2. I was at this performance and I can only say that this review seems inaccurate at best and deliberately damaging at worst. I have therefor written my own review. I should also add that as an ex opera singer myself, I actually have an understanding of vocal ability and what it takes to put in an opera like this.

    A Village Romeo & Juliet
    New Sussex Opera – Cadogan Hall, 28th March 2017

    When you think of English opera, it is easy to only think of Britten. Yet there are other operas in the repertoire which do not enjoy the same exposure and regularity of performance.
    Delius is such a composer, with a collection of 6 operas, the most well-known of which being A Village Romeo & Juliet.

    This rarely performed opera is perhaps best known for the orchestral interlude “The Walk to the Paradise Garden”, which is more commonly performed as an orchestral piece. Yet this is a great shame, given the work is as richly scored throughout as the interlude.
    Set to the short story by the Swiss author Gottfried Keller, Delius wrote the libretto himself, with his wife, in English.

    Whereas big houses are increasingly unwilling to take risks, preferring to rerun the popular works (or delving into the world of musicals!), New Sussex Opera must be admired for taking the brave steps to bring this lesser known opera to the stage, casting young emerging singers with the opportunity to learn and present such hidden gems – and with great aplomb. It’s refreshing to see a regional company veer away from the Carmens, La Traviattas and Die Fledermauses that are continuously churned out.

    The original score was written for a 110 piece orchestra. Given the current arts funding cuts, it would be hard for even the major houses to accomplish this, which can only serve as great credit to the arranger, and conductor, Lee Reynolds who has deftly, but considerately, reduced the work to fit within the 24 piece Kantanti Ensemble. Such a feat is no small undertaking, but he manages it well, maintaining a rich, balanced sound.
    In a brave move, the orchestra and conductor are situated behind the singers. Yet it is clear as to the level of rehearsal that has gone into this production, that soloists and chorus alike are comfortable and confident to perform in such a set up.

    Susannah Waters staging was minimal, but effective, reflecting the work’s rustic setting, and mirroring the struggle faced by the star crossed lovers.

    Rob Gildon as Manz and Geoffrey Moses as Marti set the scene well, with good characterisation as the fathers of the main protagonists, with Alex Edwards and Nell Parry performing with confidence as young Sali and Vrenchen. However the work really comes into its own when the lovers, now grown up appear, taking this work into the 2man show that.
    Luke Sinclair’s fine tenor aptly portrays the gung ho young lover, while Kristy Taylor-Stokes’ rich soprano displays a welcome range of vocal and emotional dynamics, masterfully portraying the more hesitant lover. Ian Beadle as the Dark Fiddler provides a sinister yet captivating character as narrator/commentator to this story, with his warm baritone.

    The chorus perform with gusto, with their few chorus moments surprisingly well balanced, (in comparison to the oh-so-common curse of lack of male chorus).

    NSO conclude their regional tour with performances in Sevenoaks on Friday and Eastbourne on Sunday.

    Emma Samios Uy

  3. As one of the chorus singers, I can definitely affirm, and would want to, that Lee gave us very definite leads; indeed his beat is one of the easiest I have ever found to follow in a singing career (albeit amateur in the main, but more than once with a professional conductor) that I have had the pleasure of following – for which many thanks.

    John Newman


  4. I have contacted my guest of Tuesday evening. If the conductor was indicating cues to his singers, this was not apparent to either of us from where we were sitting.

    I think it can be assumed that Ms Uy is not a disinterested party so far as her comments are concerned. She describes my review as “deliberately damaging”, which implies that I have some kind of ulterior motive in expressing my views. I wonder what this motive might be. I can’t think of one. In fact I was, as any critic must be, a disinterested observer.

    Alan Sanders

    [after contact with Seen and Heard this comment has been edited.]

Comments are closed.