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Reviews

New Sussex Opera, <em>A Village Romeo and Juliet</em>
27 Mar 2017

New Sussex Opera: A Village Romeo and Juliet

To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.

New Sussex Opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Kirsty Taylor-Stokes and Luke Sinclair

Photo credit: Robert Knights

 

The company makes a fair job of the task too. There is much to admire and enjoy in this production, but ultimately an overly complicated design scheme impedes rather than assists dramatic momentum. Moreover, at the E.M. Forster at Tonbridge School the cast struggled both to create credible characters and relationships, and to communicate the text with sufficiently clarity.

To be fair, the singers may not be entirely to blame. Delius concentrates on the opera’s central lovers - Sali and Vrenchen - and the other characters are only lightly sketched. There is little to differentiate them musically and, in any case, the characters’ vocal lines are shaped by harmonic imperatives rather than given individual melodic identity. Furthermore, the lovers themselves are more ‘emblems’ - of, paradoxically, both childhood innocence and, in the opera’s final moments, consuming passion - than ‘real’ figures. The composer seems to have been more concerned with what might be termed the ‘emotional landscape’, as evoked by the instrumental preludes that precede each of the six scenes.

Moreover, the E.M. Forster Theatre itself did not prove the most sympathetic venue for opera. The auditorium is fairly small, and there is no pit, which meant that the audience were seated very close to the orchestra - the excellent 24-piece Kantanti Ensemble - which served to distance the action. It did not help that conductor Lee Reynolds, who displayed enormous sensitivity to Delius’s musical rhetoric and no small skill in guiding and encouraging his instrumentalists, is himself rather tall. It was hard to avoid the visual distraction in the centre of one’s vision and focus on the stage action, particularly as the stage drapes at the rear of the stage further hindered the projection of the vocal lines.

The playing of Kantanti Ensemble was one of the strengths of the performance. Although Reynolds occasionally allowed his players a bit too much free rein, it was a treat to hear the textural and melodic delicacies. Tom Pollock’s horn playing was superb (he can be forgiven for tiring a little towards the close), and he was matched by Sacha Rattle doubling on clarinet and bass clarinet; the double basses’ tone was deliciously dark and there was some explosive drama from timpanist Will Renwick. If the sixteen string players inevitably could not generate a luxuriant stream of sound, then the accuracy of their playing was impressive, and leader Beatrice Philips offered sure, sweet-toned solos.

Sali-and-Vrenchen-2-RK.jpgKirsty Taylor-Stokes and Luke Sinclair. Photo credit: Robert Knights.

Director Susannah Waters and her design team told Delius’ tale clearly. The composer’s libretto, drawn from a short story by Gottfried Keller, reprises Shakespeare’s themes of family feuds and doomed love. Two farmers, Marti and Manz, contest the narrow strip of wild land that separates their fields and which is owned by the Dark Fiddler who, as an illegitimate son, cannot inherit. Though prohibited by their fathers, during the bitter dispute that bankrupts both farms, Sali and Vrenchen meet secretly. Friendship blossoms into love, while their fathers surreptitiously encroach onto the fallow land, inch by inch. The Dark Fiddler reappears and cautions that they should beware the time when the land is no longer a haunt of birds and animals, a warning which presages the tragedy that unfolds.

Anna Driftmier’s set is evocative. At the rear, distressed windmills flap and whirl, beside denuded tree trunks; in this barren world, one can imagine why the two farmers stake their claim for the wild pasture. However, Driftmier’s design - while ingenious - is over-complicated: the persistent choreographed re-arrangement of wooden planks and slats - they form pathways, platforms and are assembled into raised frames to suggest homes and bridges - must have caused the community chorus, effectively reduced to stage-hands, no end of trouble in rehearsal. It’s just as well that the chorus don’t have an awful lot of musical business but they sang warmly and with confidence in the marriage scene, though the communal festivities were a bit stiff.

The-Fair-RK.jpgNew Sussex Opera Chorus (The Fair). Photo credit: Robert Knights.

While the chorus effected the set transitions slickly, their complicated reshuffles could not help but be a distraction during the instrumental episodes. In the fairground setting of Scene 5 the necessary manoeuvring undermined the tense jollity of the scene, though the garish costumes were a welcome splash of colour emphasising the fickle unpredictability of this uncanny world. Even the famous ‘Walk to Paradise Garden’ was not spared: we witnessed a dumb show as Sali forged a stepping-stone conduit, stopping on their arduous journey to remove one boot and bathe his foot in a stream. And, in truth, despite the strong greens, purples, reds of Jai Morjaria’s lighting design, which created an eerie otherness, the plywood boxes and boards never looked like anything other than very real Ikea bookcases.

Tenor Luke Sinclair was buoyant and managed the high tessitura well, conveying Sali’s irrepressible impetuousness, while Kirsty Taylor-Stokes’ richly coloured mezzo and full vibrato suggested the ardour blossoming in the innocent Vrenchen’s heart, and captured her despair at the start of Scene 4. Ian Beadle’s baritone needed more nuance and portentous resonance to capture the Dark Fiddler’s enigmatic air; Beadle was all too amiable, but his song in praise of the ‘Vagabond wind’ was appealingly sung.

Dark-Fiddler-1-RK.jpgIan Beadle. Photo credit: Robert Knights.

Geoffrey Moses (Marti) and Robert Gildon (Manz) established the context and their characters deftly at the start, though Moses’ diction was weak at times and I found Gildon’s bass a little tense and occasionally unfocused. As the Young Sali and Young Vrenchen, Alex Edwards and Nell Parry were sadly over-powered (a case for a mic?); Edwards was almost inaudible, while Parry had to strain to rise above the instrumental texture.

Manz-and-young-Sali.jpgRobert Gildon and Alex Edwards. Photo credit: David James.

The final moments of the opera were absorbing and well-crafted. When the lovers are recognised at the fair, Sali suggests that they should go to the Paradise Garden where they find the Dark Fiddler and his entourage drinking and carousing. Rather than submit to the temptations of his hedonistic life, they choose to drift down river in a gradually submerging boat, resigned to the Tristan-esque double suicide that must follow. I think that the ‘wrist-slashing’ would have been best left to the imagination, but the final tableau was artfully lit in a gleam of ultramarine, and superbly paced by Reynolds.

This was an admirably ambitious production, but given the demands of performing such a musically and dramatically challenging work in five different venues one couldn’t help feel that a more minimalist staging might have more effectively focused attention on the internal drama - the power passions and dreams that are embodied in Delius’ score - which develops in the village lovers’ hearts and minds.

There are three further performances: on Tuesday 28th March at Cadogan Hall, London; and on Friday 31st March at the Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks, and on Sunday 2nd April at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne.

Claire Seymour

Delius: A Village Romeo and Juliet

Sali - Luke Sinclair, Vrenchen - Kirsty Taylor-Stokes, The Dark Fiddler - Ian Beadle, Manz - Rob Gildon, Marti - Geoffrey Moses; Young Sali - Alex Edwards; Young Vrenchen - Nell Pary; Wild Girl - Georgia Cudby; Director - Susannah Waters Conductor - Lee Reynolds, Designer - Anna Driftmier, Lighting designer - Jai Morjaria, New Sussex Opera Chorus, Kantanti Ensemble.

E.M. Forster Theatre, Tonbridge School; Sunday 26th March 2017.

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