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Frontispiece from The Rose and Ring (1855)
05 May 2016

The Rose and the Ring

Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.

The Rose and the Ring

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Frontispiece from The Rose and Ring (1855)


As I’ve written elsewhere (In conversation) , 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, it invites transformation into an opera buffa. Delighting in its absurdities, Sir Nicholas Jackson has done just that, composing new vocal lines which set a libretto formed from Thackeray’s text, and combining them with arrangements of some of Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas. The result is an opera whose action and music are fresh, piquant, splendidly absorbing and charmingly wrong-footing; and, which retains the oxymoronic blend of innocence and sophistication which characterises Thackeray’s original.

Set ‘ten or twenty thousand years ago’, the novel presents the outlandish and convoluted outcomes of the Fairy Blackstick’s meddling and cursing. The titular rose and ring are magical objects that result in the ocular duping of those who behold the bearer, rendering the latter utterly irresistible. After years of granting this blessing of ‘beauty’ to generations of royal spoiled brats, Blackstick decides to change tack, telling her godchildren that ‘the best thing I can send you is a little misfortune’.

As a result, Prince Giglio, rightful King of Paflagonia has lost his throne, which has been usurped by his uncle, Valoroso XXIV. Princess Rosalba, rightful Queen of Crim Tartary, was thrown into a lion-infested forest after Duke Padella overthrew her father, and there she wandered until turning up in Paflagonia. Now known as Betsinda, Rosalba endures a life of servitude as Princess Angelica’s maid. Meanwhile, Blackstick’s ring (presented by the besotted Prince Giglio who inherited it from his mother) has bestowed deceptive loveliness on the ugly frump Angelica, and her admirers include Prince Bulbo, Padella’s fat, idle son, who has inherited his mother’s rose. The protagonists, who include the wonderfully named Governess Gruffanuff and Captain Hogginarmo, play pass-the-parcel with the rose and ring, and romantic chaos ensues: hostages are taken, obdurate porters are turned into door-knockers, and Rosalba is sentenced to death in the lion-arena. Finally, bewitchments are reversed, rightful betrothals fulfilled … and Blackstick disappears.

Retaining as much of Thackeray’s text as possible, Sir Nicholas has arranged the action into two Acts of ten and twelve scenes respectively, illuminating the credence-straining links between them via narration which was delivered immaculately and captivatingly by actor Tim Pigott-Smith. As raconteur, he displayed persuasive sincerity as events became ever more incredible; only the merest raising of an eyebrow, the slightest of pauses, or a telling stare hinted that there was anything remarkable about the hocus pocus. Evidently himself beguiled by both the tale and its sung rendition, Pigott-Smith encouraged our applause — ‘Well, I’m enjoying it!’ — and managed to be both guileless participant and knowing observer.

We were also treated to a slide-show of some of the illustrations which Thackeray himself provided for the book. He had originally hoped to be an illustrator, but when Charles Dickens declined his drawings for Pickwick Papers, Thackeray embarked on a writing career. The illustrations, here coloured in the bright tints of fairy-tale by Nadia Jackson, suggest that it was Dickens’ loss, for the scenes and portraits depicted add considerable irony. Thus, the first is politely captioned, ‘This is Valoroso XXIV, King of Paflagonia, seated with his queen and only child at their royal breakfast-table ...’, above which we see the king engrossedly pouring over a letter which has been sent by Padella, while his fleshy, jowly wife greedily tucks into the dozen boiled eggs and monstrous tureen of porridge which have been prepared for her breakfast feast.

This visual dimension of the evening was an appealing enhancement. Eccentric fantasy or slapstick romance, The Rose and the Ring is also a sharp caricature of people and events of Thackeray’s day, presenting stereotypes of the worst elements of human nature. As the illustrations flashed in sequence I was put in mind of both John Tenniel’s drawings for Lewis Carroll and William Hogarth’s satirical cartoons. Indeed, it wouldn’t be amiss to describe this opera as a cross between Alice in Wonderland and The Rake’s Progress, not least because Sir Nicholas’s superimposition of well-defined vocal lines upon Scarlatti’s audacious music evokes the neoclassical invention of Stravinsky’s eponymous opera.

The young cast acquitted themselves admirably in what are challenging vocal roles. The melodies, often quite long-breathed, and sit in quasi-alignment with Scarlatti’s harmonies and phrase structures. Indeed, it is the asymmetries and unexpected twists, turns and convergences which give the music its distinctive and engaging identity. But, these vocal parts also require a lot of technical discipline and control, particularly as many of the arias are precipitous and have accompaniments characterised by busy interchanges and alternating textures. Moreover, there are a lot of words to fit in, and often no obvious place to take a breath. That the singers were not wedded to their scores but also aimed to communicate the dramatic inferences and contexts to the audience was even more noteworthy. With just an array of headwear — a crown, tiara, towering feathered hat, fez, porter’s cap — together with a regal gown and garter, and a sparkly wand, the soloists instantly defined character and relationships, even though many were taking two or more roles.

I found Sir Nicholas’s score intriguing and engaging throughout; there was always some detail, contrast, juxtaposition or tartness to capture the interest. In Scenes 1 and 2, the steady decorated triplets of Scarlatti’s K.215 sonata said much about the sluggish pomposity of King Valaroso XXIV, a role sung impressively by Michael Mofidian who used his stentorian but warm bass to convey the King’s self-absorbed inanity. Mofidian, whose diction was superlative, threw himself enthusiastically into a range of minor parts — coachman, gaoler, officer and porter; and in the latter role demonstrated a tangy cockney accent.

The slow climb through irregular major/minor thirds and subsequent tip-toeing descent which commences Scarlatti’s K.30 — known as ‘The Cat’s Fugue’ — was the perfect introduction to Fairy Blackstick in Act 1 Scene 3, and this challenging aria was sung with character by soprano Robyn Parton who here modified the sweetness and brightness with which she imbued Rosalba’s melodies. Parton found diverse colours, and negotiated the harmonic quirks and awkward arcs of this aria securely. The bouncing octave leaps and pounding rising arpeggios of K.2 marked the arrival of Prince Bulbo in Scene 4, a role sung by bass Edward Grint, with a lovely dark edge to the tone. Scene 5 in the same Act, ‘In the Palace Gardens’, was a boisterous ensemble enlivened by the strings’ mordants and trills (K.460).

In Act 2 Scene 5, the male quartet in Captain Hedzoff’s (Peter Aisher) army were booming of voice, as William Morgan’s Prince Giglio won them over with his persuasive lyricism, in order to save Rosalba from King Padella’s lions. The ‘tremendous battle’ of Scene 10, certainly lived up to Thackeray’s account of ‘Trumpets pealing, chargers prancing, stabbing, slashing, axing, lancing’, with the syncopations of K.546 put to good effect. Completing the cast, mezzo-soprano Katy Coventry displayed poise and vocal relaxation as Gruffanuff, soprano Katherine Crompton sparkled as a soubrette-like Angelica, while soprano Sophie Shilson (Queen) struggled a little to project but displayed a clean line.

In many ways the Drapers’ Hall was the perfect venue. The opulent Livery Hall, enlarged to its present size by Herbert Williams in the 1860s, boasts twenty-eight marble columns, an impressive display of the Drapers’ Company’s collection of royal portraits, and Herbert Draper’s rich-toned ceiling panels, commissioned by the Company in 1901, presenting scenes from The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream — a fitting counterpart to The Rose and the Ring’s blend of hyperbole and artifice, grandiosity and magic, particularly as the story grew out of a set of Twelfth Night pictures that Thackeray made for his young daughters.

In practice, however, the dimensions and acoustic of the venue presented some challenges. I was fortunate to be seated at the front of the Hall. But, with the low-level raised dais placed at one end of the long room and the screened illustrations stage-right, sight-lines may have been more restricted behind me. The size of the platform necessitated the placement of the singers behind the instrumental players, making both projection and ensemble more testing. The singers did not seem entirely happy with their positioning in the opening few numbers, but as they gained in confidence most reached out clearly over the instrumentalists, and the men in particular demonstrated crystal clear diction. As the cast increasingly embraced the more outré qualities of Thackeray’s outlandish creations, and engaged in lively dramatic interplay, I regretted that there had not been some way to move the singers to the fore, so that they could indulge their thespian instincts and we could enjoy more immediate engagement with the characters’ antics. Presumably, the different spatial dimensions of The Charterhouse, where the opera was to be formed the following evening, accommodated a more comfortable stage arrangement.

It can’t have been ideal for the instrumentalists either, with strings spread in a thin line at the front of the platform, woodwind forming a quartet to one side and harpsichord placed to the rear; in particular, the sound of the latter, played with refinement by Masumi Yamamoto, struggled to rise over the intermediate collective sound-mass.

Sir Nicholas had previously described his intention to place the instrumentalists antiphonally, and in the light of the score’s juxtaposition of string and wind timbres — and lively interplay between them — a necessary compromise must have been disappointing, but also short-lived and ultimately inconsequential, for the playing of the Concertante of London was splendid. Leader Madeleine Easton did sterling work from a centrally placed position, indicating tempo, articulation and dynamic with utmost clarity and, seemingly alert to every detail of the complicated score, offering clear guidance to the whole ensemble of players and singers.

I did wonder whether the decision to use baroque bows was the right one, though, for some of the scores more delicate contrapuntal dialogue would surely have been more incisive with modern alternatives: the opening of the Prologue did not quite make the mark it deserved as, with one player to a part, the initial string arguments were rather lacking in definition and decisiveness. The strings were, inevitably, also out-powered by the woodwind quartet — bassoonist Adam Mackenzie relished the coloristic effects and registral contrasts of his part, while Jade Bultitude’s flute added a vitalizing sweetness to the timbre. A better balance will no doubt be engineered for the forth-coming Nimbus recording.

Sir Nicholas Jackson has done a terrific job in marrying diverse worlds while retaining the idiosyncratic uniqueness of Thackeray’s novel. Initially, I was surprised that the music of some sonatas were chosen to accompany more than one scene but, then, each Scarlatti sonata seems to possess unlimited variety of passion and expression. Sir Nicholas’s The Rose and the Ring shows us the inventiveness, unpredictability and joviality common to both Thackeray and Scarlatti, as well as their underlying perspicacity.

Claire Seymour

Production details:

Libretto: Sir Nicholas Jackson, based on William Makepeace Thackeray

Composer: Sir Nicholas Jackson (adaptions of harpsichord sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti)

Narrator: Tim Pigott-Smith

Prince Giglio — William Morgan (tenor), Prince Bulbo/Count Hogginarmo — Edward Grint (bass), Rosalba/Fairy Blackstick — Robyn Parton (soprano), Angelica — Katherine Crompton (soprano), Gruffanuff — Katy Coventry (mezzo-soprano), Hedzoff — Peter Ainsher (tenor), King Valaroso XXIV — Michael Mofidian (bass), Queen — Sarah Shilson (soprano); Conductor — Sir Nicholas Jackson, Designer — Janette Bonar Law, Artwork — Nadia Jackson, Concertante of London (Madeleine Easton — leader).

Drapers’ Hall, City of London, Wednesday 4th May 2016

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