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Friday 28 September 2012

A Village Romeo and Juliet

Queen Elizabeth Hall

There is a particular category of classical works where you can predict before reading them that the programme notes will claim that we are about to hear a neglected masterpiece that only some dubious circumstance of its inception has prevented from entering into the standard repertoire. Every classical listener will have their personal list of obscurities that they think should have canonic status, and there is often great pleasure derived from listeners in knowing a "secret" work which they can extoll the virtues of and claim is the equal of X repertoire piece. Aside from a few orchestral bonbons, Delius' entire oeuvre might well fit into this category for some people, with the corollory that he is that most rarified and common of phenomenons - the "neglected composer". But the tendency for commentators to either accept or reject him wholesale is not fair on him - his life's work is not a monolith and rather than focussing on his biography as a reason for his lack of presence in orchestral programmes it is an evaluation of the music as notes (or in this case, the opera as drama) that needs to be considered to arrive at a fair appraisal.

The name is a bit of a red herring - apart from the theme of forbidden love, it is similar to Romeo and Juliet only in the broadest sense. The plot can be summarised as follows: two children are forbidden from playing with each other by their overbearing fathers who have a long standing feud. The children's attraction does not diminish with time and they arrange to meet illicitly - when the girl's father discovers them together he drags her off, but he is then killed by the boy. The lovers leave home and visit a fair and are told by vagabonds to take to the road, but they refuse. Their own solution is to get in a boat and sink it.

Though there is also the character of a mysterious fiddler who repeatedly makes an appearance, his pertinance to the drama is hazy and ill defined. Indeed the entire libretto seems somewhat vestigial,  with themes only partially realised and action very limited in scope. But if the work is hardly a Tosca-esque thrill ride, it also contains very little in the way of the intellectual or poetic ideas that may sustain other works that are not overabundant in decisive events (Tristan, Capriccio and Palestrina spring instantly to mind). What is it about? What is Delius trying to show or tell us? What does he want us to feel? Of course the task of the opera composer is to illuminate the libretto through the music, but again the music seems only rarely comitted to this task, and the lack of variety to the languid perambulation of its glutinous rhapsodic beauty soon tires the ear and inures one to its charms. Most damagingly, the vocal lines are only intermittently arresting and never seem to be entirely the point, and for the first 100 minutes, by far the work's most beautiful portions are those scored for orchestra only. Though not entirely bland, the result is a curious anonymity and dullness despite Delius' highly personal idiom and indulgent harmonic ripeness, and this compounded by the lack of emotional content makes it a difficult opera to engage with. Looked at from any angle it's impossible to escape the spiritual void that is at this opera's heart.

However, just as with his Mass of Life, thankfully Delius pulls himself together for the last 10 minutes and finally delivers music of exceptional beauty, focus and clarity. The orchestral colours glow and the voices soar in a mood of ecstatic exaltation that Delius surely intended to imbue the rest of the work with. In the context of the opera it may be too little, too late, but this scene may work well as excerpted in concert.

Anna Devin's light lyric soprano seemed one size too small for the leading role of Vreli, and while never inaudible, the voice lacked the vibrancy and resonance in lower lying passages to really cut through the admittedly muddy orchestral textures. I've liked her very much in the past, and she's still very young though so has plenty of time to work on these things - it's just not the right voice yet for full lyric parts. Joshua Ellicott was pleasing as her lover Sali, his well controlled and dynamically nuanced lyric tenor making the very most of his music's scant opportunities for displaying any sort of line or drama. Best of all was David Wilson-Johnson as The Dark Fiddler, whose rich, fruity timbre, and excellent diction made rather more of this fairly minor part than one might expect. Worrying signs of an incipient wobble have crept into Christopher Maltman's voice, though if nothing else he was impressively loud as the unsubtle character of Manz. The virtually identical character of Marti (who might just be labelled "Overbearing father no.2") was similarly acceptably sung by Andrew Shore. The myriad small roles were well taken by the youthful supporting cast.

Ronald Corp lead a committed reading of the score, and allowed the final scene to move and resonate as it should. Though he kept things moving nicely, more could have been done however to clarify the thick orchestrations and greater dynamic contrasts might have helped enliven the rather limited harmonic pallette. The London Chorus struggled with Delius' complex chromatic harmony, and didn't ever quite manage to bring it fully into focus. The New London Orchestra seemed more comfortable, though brighter, more incisive playing from all might have made things more lively.

It is only through occasionally resurrecting these rareties that we can come to a fairer picture of what we might be missing. Not every resurrection will be worthwhile, but The New London Orchestra and Ronald Corp's pioneering spirit is to be fully commended and one hopes that they might go onto to perform more obscurities in coming seasons.

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