29 Apr 2016

A Conversation with Sir Nicholas Jackson

With its merry-go-round exchange of deluded and bewitched lovers, an orphan-turned-princess, a usurped prince, a jewel and a flower with magical properties, a march to the scaffold and a meddling ‘mistress-of-ceremonies’ who encourages the young lovers to disguise and deceive, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring has all the ingredients of an opera buffa.

Indeed, the ‘Fireside Pantomime’ indulges in fiancé-swapping and satirical scepticism about love and faithfulness which would not be out of place in Così fan tutte.

So, we should not be surprised that Sir Nicholas Jackson — composer, organist and harpsichord — has recognised in the text’s wit, burlesque, swift character-sketching and dramatic vignettes, the perfect ingredients for an opera. (In fact, Thackeray’s satire had previously caught the attention of the English pianist, conductor and composer Ethel Leginska, who conducted the premiere of her second opera, The Rose and the Ring (1932) in Los Angeles on 23 February 1957, though I could find no evidence of the work having been performed subsequently.) Sir Nicholas’s The Rose and the Ring will receive its first performance at the Drapers’ Hall in the City of London on 4th May.


In conversation, Sir Nicholas explained that the origins of the project lay in coincidental but fortunate happenstance. Sir Nicholas’s grandfather, the nineteenth-century architect Sir T.G. Jackson — responsible for landmarks such as the Bridge of Sighs in Oxford and Radley Chapel — had known Thackeray’s daughter, and when rummaging through some books that he had inherited, Sir Nicholas came upon a copy of The Rose and the Ring and was instantly struck by its irresistible charm. Having recently made an arrangement for wind quintet and harpsichord of a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, it seemed to Sir Nicholas that the juxtaposition of the rhetoric of eighteenth-century musical virtuosity and nineteenth-century literary enchant would have piquant, invigorating results. So, he set about identifying sonatas by Scarlatti that might be appropriate for adaptation and orchestration.

As an internationally renowned harpsichordist, Sir Nicholas has had a long association with Scarlatti; he has performed and recorded about 40 of the composer’s 555 sonatas and is familiar with many more of Scarlatti’s works for keyboard. This suggests that selecting the specific sonatas apt for transformation would have been a straightforward task; but, Sir Nicholas explained that, although he initially had strong and clear views about which sonatas would ‘work’, he repeatedly found that his expectations were mistaken.

The prevailing binary form sonatas proved less suitable than some of the less well-known longer works and it took some time to determine those ripe for adaptation. One imagines that the compositional complexity of the works might also present problems, but listening to the afore-mentioned Sextet ( Nimbus NI6301) I found the conversational character of Sir Nicholas’s arrangement inherently dramatic, as the woodwind instruments first punctuated the cadences of the keyboard’s intricate lines, then nonchalantly ran away with the melodic threads, spinning their own elaborations — mimicking Scarlatti’s own unconventional voice-leading. The nasal quality of the deep bassoon offered a characterful bass, and I was reminded that despite the apparent simplicity and limitation of Scarlatti’s resources, the composer employed an extended compass and mined a variety of sonorities and textures. The Rose and the Ring will employ both woodwind and strings, arranged antiphonally, thereby enhancing the dialogic nature of the score.

The swiftness and athleticism of Scarlatti’s music would seem to endow it with inherent dramatic properties but a high proportion of Scarlatti sonatas are fast and Sir Nicholas explained that this presents the singers with several challenges, not least fitting in the text. In addition, the original keys have been preserved with the result that at times the vocal lines lie quite high. But, listening to the Sextet it seems to me that Scarlatti’s use of repetition and rhetorical pauses, allied with harmonic audacity and far-flung modulations will prove a perfect match for the ingenious twists and turns of Thackeray’s absurd plot.

Indeed, as Sir Nicholas recalled, the esteemed Scarlatti scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick remarked that ‘[Scarlatti] has captured the click of castanets, the strumming of guitars, the thud of muffled drums, the harsh bitter wail of gypsy lament, the overwhelming gaiety of the village band, and above all the wiry tension of the Spanish dance’, adding that the composer’s music ranges ‘the courtly to the savage, from an almost saccharine urbanity to an acrid violence. Its gaiety is all the more intense for an undertone of tragedy. Its moments of meditative melancholy are at times overwhelmed by a surge of extrovert operatic passion’.

In preparing the libretto, Sir Nicholas endeavoured to retain as much of Thackeray’s text as possible. To assist an audience possibly unfamiliar with the tale, Sir Nicholas’s wife has ‘coloured’ several of the drawings with which Thackeray — who had once intended a career as an illustrator and who contributed regularly to Punch — had himself illustrated his novel, and these will be projected during the performance. In addition, some of the 24 scenes will be linked by narration, delivered by the actor Tim Pigott-Smith.

The cast of exciting young singers comprises several graduates of the International Opera School at the Royal College of Music, including 2012 Kathleen Ferrier Award finalist soprano Robyn Parton —the current holder of the Helen Clarke Award from Garsington Opera, who in September 2015 made her main stage debut as Barbarina in the ROH’s Le nozze di Figaro; bass-baritone Edward Grint, a London Handel Competition finalist in 2014, and Scottish mezzo-soprano; and, Katie Coventry, who is currently training at the International Opera School with Tim Evan-Jones. They are joined by fellow RCM graduates tenors Peter Aisher and William Morgan (the latter is National Opera Studio young artist in 2015-16) and Scottish-Iranian bass-baritone Michael Mofidian, who is studying at the Royal Academy of Music.

The singers will be accompanied by Concertante of London, the baroque ensemble which is led by violinist Madeleine Easton and of which Sir Nicholas is director. Indeed, the instrumentalists (who will perform on modern instruments) form a body of players with considerable experience of performing Sir Nicholas’s reconstructions and arrangements, having previously presented his ‘completion’ of William Lawes’ masqueThe Triumph of Peace and his realisation of Bach’s Musical Offering for four players ( SOMMCD 077).

Following the Drapers’ Hall performance, The Rose and the Ring will receive a public performance on 5th May at The Charterhouse — and it will undoubtedly be a ‘merrier’ occasion than Thackeray’s own ‘first night’ at the school in 1822, when he encountered ‘hard bed, hard words, strange boys bullying, and laughing, and jarring you with their hateful merriment’. Following the Charterhouse performance, the proceeds of which are being donated to the Charterhouse Charity ( Suttons Hospital) , the cast will gather on 7th May to record the work for release later in the year.

The Rose and the Ring is not Sir Nicholas’s first opera. In 1995 The Reluctant Highwayman was performed at Broomhill; subsequently revised, the three-act work employs similar forces to The Ring and the Rose. Excerpts have been recorded ( Nimbus NI6301) and Sir Nicholas hopes that the opera might be recorded in its entirety in the future.

But, before that we have the premiere of The Rose and the Ring to look forward to, and I anticipate an entertaining and thought-provoking evening in which social short-comings and human vanity are set alongside the sorrows attendant on love, and presented in striking music which is both elegant lavish.

Claire Seymour