Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.

Lost Stravinsky re-united with Rimsky-Korsakov, Gergiev, Mariinsky

Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante fun├Ębre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.

Philippe Jaroussky at the Wigmore Hall: Baroque cantatas by Telemann and J.S.Bach

On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.

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):