Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

A Musical Reunion at Garsington Opera

The hum of bees rising from myriad scented blooms; gentle strains of birdsong; the cheerful chatter of picnickers beside a still lake; decorous thwacks of leather on willow; song and music floating through the warm evening air.

'In my end is my beginning': Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida perform Winterreise at Wigmore Hall

All good things come to an end, so they say. Let’s hope that only the ‘good thing’ part of the adage is ever applied to Wigmore Hall, and that there is never any sign of ‘an end’.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny bring 'sweet music' to Wigmore Hall

Countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny kicked off the final week of live lunchtime recitals broadcast online and on radio from Wigmore Hall.

From Our House to Your House: live from the Royal Opera House

I’m not ashamed to confess that I watched this live performance, streamed from the stage of the Royal Opera House, with a tear in my eye.

Woman’s Hour with Roderick Williams and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

At the start of this lunchtime recital, Roderick Williams set out the rationale behind the programme that he and pianist Joseph Middleton presented at Wigmore Hall, bringing to a close a second terrific week of live lunchtime broadcasts, freely accessible via Wigmore Hall’s YouTube channel and BBC Radio 3.

Natalya Romaniw - Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

Sailing home to Corinth, bearing treasures won in a music competition, the mythic Greek bard, Arion, found his golden prize coveted by pirates and his life in danger.

Purcell’s The Indian Queen from Lille

Among the few compensations opera lovers have had from the COVID crisis is the abundance – alas, plethora – of streamed opera productions we might never have seen or even known of without it.

Philip Venables' Denis & Katya: teenage suicide and audience complicity

As an opera composer, Philip Venables writes works quite unlike those of many of his contemporaries. They may not even be operas at all, at least in the conventional sense - and Denis & Katya, the most recent of his two operas, moves even further away from this standard. But what Denis & Katya and his earlier work, 4.48 Psychosis, have in common is that they are both small, compact forces which spiral into extraordinarily powerful and explosive events.

A new, blank-canvas Figaro at English National Opera

Making his main stage debut at ENO with this new production of The Marriage of Figaro, theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins professes to have found it difficult to ‘develop a conceptual framework for the production to inhabit’.

Massenet’s Chérubin charms at Royal Academy Opera

“Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio … Now I’m fire, now I’m ice, any woman makes me change colour, any woman makes me quiver.”

Bluebeard’s Castle, Munich

Last year the world’s opera companies presented only nine staged runs of Béla Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If obsession is key to understanding the dramatic and musical fabric of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, the current production at Lyric Opera of Chicago succeeds admirably in portraying such aspects of the human psyche.

WNO revival of Carmen in Cardiff

Unveiled by Welsh National Opera last autumn, this Carmen is now in its first revival. Original director Jo Davies has abandoned picture postcard Spain and sun-drenched vistas for images of grey, urban squalor somewhere in modern-day Latin America.

Lise Davidsen 'rescues' Tobias Kratzer's Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Making Fidelio - Beethoven’s paean to liberty, constancy and fidelity - an emblem of the republican spirit of the French Revolution is unproblematic, despite the opera's censor-driven ‘Spanish’ setting.

A sunny, insouciant Così from English Touring Opera

Beach balls and parasols. Strolls along the strand. Cocktails on the terrace. Laura Attridge’s new production of Così fan tutte which opened English Touring Opera’s 2020 spring tour at the Hackney Empire, is a sunny, insouciant and often downright silly affair.

A wonderful role debut for Natalya Romaniw in ENO's revival of Minghella's Madama Butterfly

The visual beauty of Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madama Butterfly, now returning to the Coliseum stage for its seventh revival, still takes one’s breath away.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Seattle

It appears that Charlie Parker’s Yardbird has reached the end of its road in Seattle. Since it opened in 2015 at Opera Philadelphia it has played Arizona, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and the English National Opera.

La Périchole in Marseille

The most notable of all Péricholes of Offenbach’s sentimental operetta is surely the legendary Hortense Schneider who created the role back in 1868 at Paris’ Théâtre des Varietés. Alas there is no digital record.

Three Centuries Collide: Widmann, Ravel and Beethoven

It’s very rare that you go to a concert and your expectation of it is completely turned on its head. This was one of those. Three works, each composed exactly a century apart, beginning and ending with performances of such clarity and brilliance.

Seventeenth-century rhetoric from The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

‘Yes, in my opinion no rhetoric more persuadeth or hath greater power over the mind; hath not Musicke her figures, the same which Rhetorique? What is a but her Antistrophe? her reports, but sweet Anaphora's? her counterchange of points, Antimetabole's? her passionate Aires but Prosopopoea's? with infinite other of the same nature.’

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Philippa Murray as Mary and Zachary Devin as Hugh the Drover [Photo by Laurent Compagnon courtesy of Hampstead Garden Opera]
22 Nov 2011

Hugh the Drover Over the Pub

Imagine a tuneful eighteenth-century “ballad opera” of country life, say Stephen Storace’s enduringly popular No Song No Supper, cross it with Cavalleria Rusticana, throw in a bit of Rocky for good measure, and you have some idea of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s first opera, Hugh the Drover, a “Romantic Ballad Opera.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Hugh the Drover

Hugh the Drover: Zachary Devin; Mary: Phillipa Murray; John the Butcher: David Roberts; Aunt Jane: Charlotte King; The Showman / Sergeant: James Williams; The Constable: Ian Helm; The Turnkey: Nick Whitfield; The Ballad Seller: Robert Davis. Hampstead Garden Opera and the Dionysus Ensemble. Music Director / Conductor: Oliver-John Ruthven. Production Director: Angela Hardcastle. Set and Costume Designer: Charlie Tymms. Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate, London, 12 November 2011 (matinee).

Above: Philippa Murray as Mary and Zachary Devin as Hugh the Drover [Photo by Laurent Compagnon courtesy of Hampstead Garden Opera]

 

The Rocky element may seem the least likely, but in fact Hugh the Drover grew out of Vaughan Williams’s wish “to set a prize fight to music.” One possibility he considered was an opera based on George Borrow’s strange, atmospheric Bildungsroman, Lavengro (1851), which contains what used to be one of the most famous fights in English literature. Such an opera may have had the dramatic profundity to establish a place in the English repertoire, but unfortunately it was never written. Instead, Vaughan Williams set a rather trite libretto by Harold Child (1869-1945), a writer and theatre critic with no previous experience of writing librettos. Child arranged a story (suggested in good part by the composer) in which there is a prize fight between love rivals. There is evidence that Vaughan Williams was unhappy with Child’s unrealistic rendering of country life, and his thoughts about his librettist’s talents are succinctly revealed in his immediate conversion to the idea of Literaturoper (his next opera, Sir John in Love, takes a libretto directly from Shakespeare no less). In 1942 he pointedly omitted Hugh from a list of his operas with “good libretti.”

Nevertheless, Child’s libretto is not quite the hopeless thing it is sometimes represented as. It tells a simple story of love-at-first-sight set in a Cotswold market town (inspired by Northleach, Gloucestershire) at the time of the Napoleonic wars. Mary, daughter of the village constable, is being pressed into an unwilling marriage with the wealthy but brutal John the butcher. When Hugh the drover appears and offers her the chance to escape to a life of heavily romanticised wandering she unhesitatingly declares a willingness to become his bride. Immediately afterwards John offers to fight anyone for twenty pounds, Hugh takes him on, says he is fighting for Mary, and in proper Rocky fashion comes from behind to win triumphantly. But then John denounces Hugh as a French spy, the villagers turn on him (a slight pre-echo of Peter Grimes), and he is placed in the stocks. Mary is loyal to her man, and when his innocence is proved they set off almost immediately to follow the droving life together. The main idea may have come from J. M. Synge’s first play, In the Shadow of the Glen (1903), where an unnamed tramp persuades an unhappily married woman to embark on some romanticised tramping with him (“you'll be hearing the herons crying out over the black lakes”).

Vaughan Williams set Hugh and Mary’s story to the most gloriously tuneful music possible. Hugh the Drover has the same sort of melodic richness as Cavalleria Rusticana, and as with Mascagni’s masterpiece much of it appears to be constructed from the very stuff of popular song. The analogy can be taken further, too: both these operas of high passions in country places have an unpretentious, spontaneous, youthful freshness about them (though Vaughan Williams was no youth when he wrote Hugh); and both include extensive choral music to construct a musical portrait of a community, the values of which have a significant bearing on the foregrounded action. What is most surprising, though, is that Vaughan Williams wrote some passionate, thrilling vocal lines for Hugh and Mary that would by no means be out of place in Cavalleria.

But while Mascagni’s opera conquered the world and came to define the very idea of “popular opera,” Hugh the Drover signally failed. Written between 1910 and 1914, no production could be arranged before the First World War erupted. After the war Vaughan Williams tinkered with it, and for unexplained reasons there was no production until 1924, when the British National Opera Company gave three performances at the end of their season. Since then there have been a considerable number of productions, nearly all of them in Britain, but it has been shunned by the big companies and come nowhere near to being a standard repertoire work.

It would be unfair to blame this wholly on the libretto. Hugh the Drover gives out mixed messages about what it wants to be, unlike Ethel Smyth’s closely contemporary The Boatswain’s Mate (1916), which similarly set out to be a “popular opera” and enjoyed vastly more success (it was in the repertory of the Old Vic in the 1920s). The Boatswain’s Mate, too, is a story of country life with music that often seems close to popular song. But Smyth, who prepared her own libretto, created far more believable characters and even when they sing in an obviously “operatic” fashion the dramatic illusion is maintained that they are ordinary people inhabiting their ordinary culture (just as in Albert Herring, say). By contrast, Hugh and Mary are not remotely credible as real country folk and their vision of marriage is purely fantastical. They are operatic lovers, as much Italian as British, and in their passion seem to enter a world of “high” culture remote from the popular culture of the village around them.

Should Hugh the Drover, then, be produced as a folksy village piece, or as a stirring, “operatic” love story, a sort of English verismo? Uncertainty has been fatal to the opera’s success. Big companies have no doubt correctly concluded that serious productions emphasising the more operatic qualities would get a thorough mauling from the professional critics (whose taste for British opera seldom ventures back further than Britten). The thinness of the story, the lack of psychological interest, and the clunky poetry of the libretto, too often unintentionally funny, would all be exposed. On the other hand, the size of the opera, and the musical demands it makes, have been major discouragements to the amateur and semi-professional companies who might be attracted to its more folksy, fun-filled side, and who could give it the sort of down to earth treatment as unpretentious entertainment that the story is best designed to support.

It would perhaps be a slight exaggeration to suggest that all the problems surrounding Hugh the Drover have been solved at a stroke by Hampstead Garden Opera, but it is close to the truth. Their production feels absolutely right. It has been made possible by a new reduced version of the score for chamber orchestra prepared by Oliver-John Ruthven; it’s pleasing to note that this was undertaken “with permission, encouragement and generous support from the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust” and is now available to hire. At the small Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre the musicians are unobtrusively tucked away to one side of the performance space, the rest of which is transformed into a Georgian town square. The audience is essentially in the imagined town, which comes across as the sort of charming vision of English country life in yesteryear in which we all like to believe. The theatre itself is famously above a pub, drinks can be taken upstairs, hardly anyone bothers to dress up, and the simplicity of it all is perfectly suited to the imagined world of Hugh the Drover, which could easily appear absurdly quaint framed by an elaborate proscenium arch.

The secret of Hampstead Garden Opera’s success, I think, is that they concentrate simply on the entertainment value of the opera. They neither attempt to dignify it with a serious treatment, nor trace some meaning in it that simply isn’t there, nor, heaven forbid, try to make it “relevant.” They do not send it up, but they “sub-reference” the audience, to use Charles Lamb’s term, just enough to say “look, this is all tremendous fun, and we’re really enjoying ourselves.” This palpable sense of enjoyment conveyed by the singers, combined with the sheer immediacy of the production, was tremendously infectious, and it is hard to imagine anyone with a taste for musical theatre, of whatever stamp, not enjoying this production. Indeed for anyone who’s “afraid of opera” but likes other kinds of musical theatre, this Hugh the Drover can be recommended as an irresistible introduction to the art form. Peter Grimes can wait till later.

The openness of the production to the pure pleasure of the work was not at the expense of any significant compromise in musical values. Zachary Devin and Phillipa Murray were superb as Hugh and Mary, both singing in the strong, impassioned but unshowy way that Vaughan Williams would have wanted. The supporting roles were sung in character very ably, and the chorus sang their socks off whenever they had the chance. Oliver-John Ruthven conducted himself, providing a spirited and faultless accompaniment to the proceedings; some subtleties in the full score were doubtless sacrificed in the rearrangement, but I can’t say I noticed, and I doubt anyone else did either.

Altogether, while I can imagine technically more polished versions of Hugh the Drover, I find it hard to imagine a better one, and now that it has been adjusted to the needs of smaller companies and venues I hope it will become more widely recognised for what it is: not a great opera, but great operatic entertainment, with melodies that lodge themselves in your head for days.

David Chandler

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):