18 Oct 2005


You may never have heard of Lennox Berkeley. But his music was admired by many of the most notable composers of the mid-20th century—Britten and Poulenc were close personal friends, and he has a dedicated band of admirers today (there is a Lennox Berkeley Society). Yet, for one reason or another, Berkeley has never become a household name.

The composer wrote music in a broad range of genres, including four operas, only one of which—his 1954 opera Nelson—is a full length work. Ruth, his third, was commissioned by Britten’s English Opera Group after their successful premiere of his second opera, the comedic A Dinner Engagement. The libretto was provided by Britten collaborator Eric Crozier, and the role of Boaz was sung by Peter Pears.

Ruth premiered in October 1956, paired with seventeenth-century composer John Blow’s Venus and Adonis. Like all works performed by the English Opera Group, Ruth was scored for very small forces—two flutes, horn, piano, timpani, and eleven string players.

Berkeley was a lifelong Christian, converting to Catholicism in 1929, and his opera Ruth is clearly a statement of faith. The story, for the most part, sticks to the biblical narrative which tells how the Israelite woman Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law return to Bethlehem after the deaths of Naomi’s Moabite husband, and her two sons. Crozier and Berkeley make a point of the fact that Moab was an enemy of Israel, and thus Ruth is treated as a feared outsider by the Israelites.

The 78-minute opera is divided into three scenes. In the first, Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah are nearing Bethlehem. Naomi is anxious about how she will be received, and urges her two daughters-in-law to return to the homes of their mothers. Orpah eventually obeys, but Ruth insists that she will stay with Naomi, singing an aria which enlarges on the famous biblical text:

Whither thou goest, I will go.
Where thou lodgest, I will lodge.
Where thou diest, I will die
and there I will be buried...
Thy people shall be my people,
and thy God my God!

Naomi and Ruth are destitute, and in the second scene Ruth tries to follow an Israelite custom which allows poor women to glean in the barley fields following the harvesters. But in Berkeley’s telling, the Israelites cruelly attempt to exclude Ruth as an enemy and a witch. The field’s owner, Boaz, intervenes, and scolds the harvesters for their inhospitality. Ruth is gracious, and urges Boaz not to judge his people harshly, as they merely “hate what they cannot understand”.

In the final scene, Naomi urges Ruth offer herself as a wife to Boaz, though the colorful biblical episode of Ruth lying down at the Boaz’s feet while he sleeps is absent. Boaz is surprised, but acquiesces. He presents his new wife to the people, and everyone rejoices, predicting that Ruth’s womb shall “bring forth kings” (Ruth was the foremother of both David and Jesus), and praising God.

Ruth is probably not an opera for those who define the form through their love of the warhorses that appear at their local opera house. This isn’t Tosca or Tristan. The music is not easy to describe. It is emotionally cool, reminiscent of Stravinsky and Britten, yet it is also rich in it’s sensuous orchestral timbres, reminding one perhaps of Ravel, a composer whom Berkeley had gone to for advice as a youth. For the most part it lacks any sense of naturalistic drama—seeming at times rather like a biblical pageant. Yet at others, it does gain a certain emotional momentum. The first scene seems especially dramatically detached—yet it’s mournful, astringent harmonies are affecting. The confrontation between Ruth and the reapers struck me as trying too hard for modern applicability (racial prejudice, etc.), yet the following exchange between Ruth and Boaz, though not exactly a love duet, is none-the-less poignant and touching. As the story develops, the chorus takes on a large role, and here the choral writing frequently reminded me of the much younger British choral composer John Rutter. Was Rutter an admirer of Berkeley, or did they both look to an earlier model? At times, recitative-like passages are accompanied only by the piano.

With Ruth, Chandos has released a characteristically fine product. The opera is attractively packaged, has excellent sound, and contains an informative booklet with full libretto translated into French and German. The soloists are fine, with mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby singing an affecting Ruth with her large, dark voice, and tenor Mark Tucker as Boaz—who I expect I would prefer in the role to Peter Pears—makes one curious to hear him in more familiar repertory. As Naomi, soprano Yvonne Kenny sings with a rather wide vibrato that gives her a more matronly sound, but considering the role, this is wholly appropriate. Richard Hickox leads the City of London Sinfonia in a performance of exquisite subtlety, which is exactly what this music requires.

All in all, for the adventurous opera lover who isn’t wholly repelled by the twentieth century musical language that developed after romanticism, Ruth offers many pleasures.

Eric D. Anderson