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

Desert Island Delights at the RCM: Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe

Britannia waives the rules: The EU Brexit in quotes’. Such was the headline of a BBC News feature on 28th June 2016. And, nearly three years later, those who watch the runaway Brexit-train hurtle ever nearer to the edge of Dover’s white cliffs might be tempted by the thought of leaving this sceptred (sceptic?) isle, for a life overseas.

Akira Nishimura’s Asters: A Major New Japanese Opera

Opened as recently as 1997, the Opera House of the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) is one of the newest such venues among the world’s great capitals, but, with ten productions of opera a year, ranging from baroque to contemporary, this publicly-owned and run theatre seems determined to make an international impact.

The Outcast in Hamburg

It is a “a musicstallation-theater with video” that had its world premiere at the Mannheim Opera in 2012, revived just now in a new version by Vienna’s ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wein for one performance at the Vienna Konzerthaus and one performance in Hamburg’s magnificent Elbphilharmonie (above). Olga Neuwirth’s The Outcast and this rich city are imperfect bedfellows!

Monarchs corrupted and tormented: ETO’s Idomeneo and Macbeth at the Hackney Empire

Promises made to placate a foe in the face of imminent crisis are not always the most well-considered and have a way of coming back to bite one - as our current Prime Minister is finding to her cost.

Der Fliegende Holländer and
Tannhäuser in Dresden

To remind you that Wagner’s Dutchman had its premiere in Dresden’s Altes Hoftheater in 1843 and his Tannhauser premiered in this same theater in 1845 (not to forget that Rienzi premiered in this Saxon court theater in 1842).

WNO's The Magic Flute at the Birmingham Hippodrome

A perfect blue sky dotted with perfect white clouds. Identikit men in bowler hats clutching orange umbrellas. Floating cyclists. Ferocious crustaceans.

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria: Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra

This was an oddly fascinating concert - though, I’m afraid, for quite the wrong reasons (though this depends on your point of view). As a vehicle for the sound, and playing, of the London Symphony Orchestra it was a notable triumph - they were not so much luxurious - rather a hedonistic and decadent delight; but as a study into three composers, who wrote so convincingly for opera, and taken somewhat out of their comfort zone, it was not a resounding success.

WNO's Un ballo in maschera at Birmingham's Hippodrome

David Pountney and his design team - Raimund Bauer (sets), Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes), Fabrice Kebour (lighting) - have clearly ‘had a ball’ in mounting this Un ballo in maschera, the second part of WNO’s Verdi trilogy and which forms part of a spring season focusing on what Pountney describes as the “profound and mysterious issue of Monarchy”.

Super #Superflute in North Hollywood

Pacific Opera Project’s rollicking new take on The Magic Flute is as much endearing fun as a box full of puppies.

Leading Ladies: Barbara Strozzi and Amiche

I couldn’t help wondering; would a chamber concert of vocal music by female composers of the 17th century be able sustain our concentration for 90 minutes? Wouldn’t most of us be feeling more dutiful than exhilarated by the end?

George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill at Wigmore Hall

This week, the Wigmore Hall presents two concerts from George Benjamin and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, the first ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street, the second moving north to Camden’s Roundhouse. For the first, we heard Benjamin’s now classic first opera, Into the Little Hill, prefaced by three ensemble works by Cathy Milliken, Christian Mason, and, for the evening’s spot of ‘early music’, Luigi Dallapiccola.

Marianne Crebassa sings Berio and Ravel: Philharmonia Orchestra with Salonen

It was once said of Cathy Berberian, the muse for whom Luciano Berio wrote his Folk Songs, that her voice had such range she could sing the roles of both Tristan and Isolde. Much less flatteringly, was my music teacher’s description of her sound as akin to a “chisel being scraped over sandpaper”.

Rossini's Elizabeth I: English Touring Opera start their 2019 spring tour

What was it with Italian bel canto and the Elizabethan age? The era’s beautiful, doomed queens and swash-buckling courtiers seem to have held a strange fascination for nineteenth-century Italians.

Chameleonic new opera featuring Caruso in Amsterdam

Micha Hamel’s new opera, Caruso a Cuba, is constantly on the move. The chameleonic score takes on a myriad flavours, all with a strong sense of mood or place.

Ernst Krenek: Karl V, Bayerisches Staatsoper

Ernst Krenek’s Karl V op 73 at the Bayerisches Staatsoper, with Bo Skovhus, conducted by Erik Nielsen, in a performance that reveals the genius of Krenek’s masterpiece. Contemporary with Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Berg’s Lulu, and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Krenek’s Karl V is a metaphysical drama, exploring psychological territory with the possibilities opened by new musical form.

A Sparkling Merry Widow at ENO

A small, formerly great, kingdom, is on the verge of bankruptcy and desperate to prevent its ‘assets’ from slipping into foreign hands. Sexual and political intrigues are bluntly exposed. The princes and patriarchs are under threat from both the ‘paupers’ and the ‘princesses’, and the two dangers merge in the glamorous figure of the irresistibly wealthy Pontevedrin beauty, Hanna Glawari, a working-class girl who’s married up and made good.

Mozart: Così fan tutte - Royal Opera House

Così fan tutte is, primarily, an ensemble opera and it sinks or swims on the strength of its sextet of singers - and this performance very much swam. In a sense, this is just as well because Jan Phillip Gloger’s staging (revived here by Julia Burbach) is in turns messy, chaotic and often confusing. The tragedy of this Così is that it’s high art clashing with Broadway; a theatre within an opera and a deceit wrapped in a conundrum.

Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child: an ROH world premiere

The Royal Opera House’s choice of work for the first new production in the splendidly redesigned Linbury Theatre - not unreasonably, it seems to have lost ‘Studio’ from its name - is, perhaps, a declaration of intent; it may certainly be received as such. Not only is it a new work; it is billed specifically as ‘our first opera for teenage audiences’.

Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the first moments of the recent revival of Sir David McVicar’s production of Elektra by Richard Strauss at Lyric Opera of Chicago the audience is caught in the grip of a rich music-drama, the intensity of which is not resolved, appropriately, until the final, symmetrical chords.

Expressive Monteverdi from Les Talens Lyriques at Wigmore Hall

This was an engaging concert of madrigals and dramatic pieces from (largely) Claudio Monteverdi’s Venetian years, a time during which his quest to find the ‘natural way of imitation’ - musical embodiment of textual form, meaning and affect - took the form not primarily of solo declamation but of varied vocal ensembles of two or more voices with rich instrumental accompaniments.

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):