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 Recordings

Roger Quilter: The Complete Quilter Songbook, Vol. 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume 3 in their series The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records.

Richard Danielpour – The Passion of Yeshua

A contemporary telling of the Passion story which uses texts from both the Christian and the Jewish traditions to create a very different viewpoint.

Les Talens Lyriques: 18th-century Neapolitan sacred works

In 1770, during an extended tour of France and Italy to observe the ‘present state of music’ in those two countries, the English historian, critic and composer Charles Burney spent a month in Naples - a city which he noted (in The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771)) ‘has so long been regarded as the centre of harmony, and the fountain from whence genius, taste, and learning, have flowed to every other part of Europe.’

Herbert Howells: Missa Sabrinensis revealed in its true glory

At last, Herbert Howells’s Missa Sabrinensis (1954) with David Hill conducting the Bach Choir, with whom David Willcocks performed the piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 1982. Willcocks commissioned this Mass for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1954, when Howells himself conducted the premiere.

Le Banquet Céleste: Stradella's San Giovanni Battista

The life of Alessandro Stradella was characterised by turbulence, adventure and amorous escapades worthy of an opera libretto. Indeed, at least seven composers have turned episodes from the 17th-century Italian composer’s colourful life into operatic form, the best known being Flotow whose three-act comic opera based on the Lothario’s misadventures was first staged in Hamburg in 1844.

Ethel Smyth: Songs and Ballads - a new recording from SOMM

In 1877, Ethel Smyth, aged just nineteen, travelled to Leipzig to begin her studies at the German town’s Music Conservatory, having finally worn down the resistance of her father, General J.H. Smyth.

Wagner: Excerpts from Der Ring des Niebelungen, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, RCA-Sony

This new recording of excerpts from Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen is quite exceptional - and very unusual for this kind of disc. The words might be missing, but the fact they are proves to have rather the opposite effect. It is one of the most operatic of orchestral Wagner discs I have come across.

Wagner: Die Walküre, Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Simon Rattle, BR Klassik

Simon Rattle has never particularly struck me as a complex conductor. He is not, for example, like Furtwängler, Maderna, Boulez or Sinopoli - all of whom brought a breadth of learning and a knowledge of composition to bear on what they conducted.

Dvořák Requiem, Jakub Hrůša in memoriam Jiří Bělohlávek

Antonín Dvořák Requiem op.89 (1890) with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The Requiem was one of the last concerts Jiří Bělohlávek conducted before his death and he had been planning to record it as part of his outstanding series for Decca.

Schumann Symphonies, influenced by song

John Eliot Gardiner's Schumann series with the London Symphony Orchestra, demonstrate the how Schumann’s Lieder and piano music influenced his approach to symphonic form and his interests in music drama.

Unusual and beautiful: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the music of Raminta Šerkšnytė

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the music of Raminta Šerkšnytė with the Kremerata Baltica, in this new release from Deutsche Grammophon.

Diana Damrau sings Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder on Erato

“How weary we are of wandering/Is this perhaps death?” These closing words of ‘Im Abendrot’, the last of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder, and the composer’s own valedictory work, now seem unusually poignant since they stand as an epitaph to Mariss Jansons’s final Strauss recording.

Vaughan Williams Symphonies 3 & 4 from Hyperion

Latest in the highly acclaimed Hyperion series of Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies, Symphonies no 3 and 4, with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded in late 2018 after a series of live performances.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with the Thomanerchor and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig

This Accentus release of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, recorded live on 15/16th December 2018 at St. Thomas’s Church Leipzig, takes the listener ‘back to Bach’, so to speak.

Retrospect Opera's new recording of Ethel Smyth's Fête Galante

Writing in April 1923 in The Bookman, of which he was editor, about Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-14) - the most frequently performed of the composer’s own operas during her lifetime - Rodney Bennett reflected on the principal reasons for the general neglect of Smyth’s music in her native land.

A compelling new recording of Bruckner's early Requiem

The death of his friend and mentor Franz Seiler, notary at the St Florian monastery to which he had returned as a teaching assistant in 1845, was the immediate circumstance which led the 24-year-old Anton Bruckner to compose his first large-scale sacred work: the Requiem in D minor for soloists, choir, organ continuo and orchestra, which he completed on 14th March 1849.

Emmerich Kálmán: Ein Herbstmanöver

Brilliant Emmerich Kálmán’s Ein Herbstmanöver from the Stadttheater, Giessen in 2018, conducted by Michael Hofstetter now on Oehms Classics, in a performing version by Balázs Kovalik.

Liszt Petrarca Sonnets complete – Andrè Schuen, Daniel Heide

An ambitious new series focusing on the songs of Franz Liszt, starting with all three versions of the Tre Sonetti del Petrarca, (Petrarca Sonnets), S.270a, S.270b and S.161 with Andrè Schuen and Daniel Heide for Avi-music.de.

Une soirée chez Berlioz – lyrical rarities, on Berlioz’s own guitar

Une soirée chez Berlioz – an evening with Berlioz, songs for voice, piano and guitar, with Stéphanie D’Oustrac, Thibaut Roussel (guitar), and Tanguy de Williencourt (piano).

A Baroque Christmas from Harmonia Mundi

A baroque Christmas from Harmonia Mundi, this year’s offering in their acclaimed Christmas series. Great value for money - four CDs of music so good that it shouldn’t be saved just for Christmas. The prize here, though is the Pastorale de Noël by Marc-Antoine Charpentier with Ensemble Correspondances, with Sébastien Daucé, highly acclaimed on its first release just a few years ago.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Recordings

Lyrita REAM2122
17 Jul 2017

A Falstaff Opera in Shakespeare’s Words: Sir John in Love

Only one Shakespeare play has resulted in three operas that get performed today (whether internationally or primarily in one language-region). Perhaps surprisingly, the play in question is a comedy that is sometimes considered a lesser work by the Bard: The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Sir John in Love

April Cantelo (Anne Page), Pamela Bowden (Mrs. Quickly), James Johnston (Fenton), John Cameron (Ford), Roderick Jones (Falstaff); Heddle Nash (Shallow), Parry Jones (Sir Hugh Evans), Gerald Davies (Slender), Andrew Gold (Peter Simple), Denis Dowling (Page), John Kentish (Bardolph), Denis Catlin (Num), Forbes Robinson (Pistol), Laelia Finneberg (Mrs. Page), Marion Lowe (Mrs. Ford), Francis Loring (Dr. Caius), Ronald Lewis (Rugby), Owen Brannigan (Host of the “Garter Inn”). Sadler’s Wells Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra, cond. Stanford Robinson.

Lyrita REAM2122 [2CDs]

$18.99  Click to buy

The three operas bear distinctive titles: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, by Otto Nicolai; Verdi’s Falstaff; and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love. Of these, only Vaughan Williams’s was composed to an English text. Thus it has the special merit of allowing singers and listeners to relish Shakespeare’s actual words.

The British firm Lyrita has recently released a studio recording made in 1956 by the cast that, I assume, was currently performing the work at Sadler’s Wells. (Sadler’s Wells Opera, in London, would later be renamed the English National Opera.) Three of the singers had performed these same roles at Sadler’s Wells during the work’s first run of performances there (1946). One of them—Roderick Jones, the Falstaff—had sung in the opening night of the 1946 production and thus, as one says, had “created” the role.

The opera’s actual first, tryout staging had taken place seventeen years earlier at the Royal College of Music. During the years between that student production and the Sadler’s Wells premiere, Vaughan Williams added several notable passages to the score that enrich it greatly.

The CD recording under review was made in the BBC studios in 1956 and broadcast at the time, apparently with narrative explanations between the scenes. (Only one of those spoken links is included in this release, just enough to give a bit of period flavor.) Fortunately, many important BBC broadcasts of important works and performances were recorded by a devoted listener, Richard Itter, at his home on high-quality equipment . Sir John in Love is one of a number of these that are now being released for the first time—with permission from the BBC and the musicians’ union.

The recording is the third commercial release of Sir John in Love to reach the market, though it was the first of them to have been recorded. The other two are likewise studio recordings, but in stereo. One, on EMI (1975), is conducted by Meredith Davies, with Raimund Herincx as Falstaff; the other, on Chandos (2001), is conducted by Richard Hickox, with Donald Maxwell as Falstaff. April Milazzo, in American Record Guide, praised the Chandos recording (November/December 2001 issue), but she regretted that Maxwell showed little heft or personality in the title role. (Click here to get a sense of Maxwell’s rather placid take on the role.) I have listened to excerpts from that recording and find it often entrancing, mainly because one can hear so much more detail in the orchestra than on the 1956 recording reviewed here. The 1975 EMI recording also has many merits. (Click here for the final scene of the opera as heard in the 1975 EMI recording featuring Herincx. The scene begins with a prelude that Vaughan Williams would later expand and publish as a separate orchestral piece: the Fantasia on “Greensleeves.”)

But the belatedly released historic radio-broadcast recording from 1956 may well be the best point of entry for anyone who is unfamiliar with the opera, for it vividly conveys the interplay between the characters and between characters and chorus.

Opera lovers familiar with Verdi’s Falstaff will find that this work takes a refreshingly different tack. Vaughan Williams prepared the libretto himself, and skillfully. We get to experience many lively interchanges involving secondary characters who are absent from, or greatly downsized in, Boito’s libretto for Verdi, including Shallow, Slender, Peter Simple, and Dr. Caius.

Vaughan Williams also made the libretto more music-friendly by having various of the characters, or sometimes the chorus, sing folk-like numbers using poems and song texts from Shakespeare’s time—e.g., by Ben Jonson and Philip Sidney. He also sometimes integrated entire tunes from the time. The various “song” numbers are extraordinarily well integrated: for example, Mistress Page sings an extended snatch of the folksong “Greensleeves” while awaiting a visit from Falstaff, who then announces his arrival with his usual self-importance by continuing her song. There are, at several points in the opera, witty references in the orchestra to the well-known and, for this opera, aptly worded folk song “John, Come Kiss Me Now.” The chorus often participates actively, sometimes aligning itself with one or another character.

On those occasions when a situation in Sir John in Love is closely parallel to one in Verdi’s Falstaff, Vaughan Williams handles it no less expertly, though differently: for example, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford have fun reading Falstaff’s letters to each of them in canon, something Verdi did not choose to do.

The monophonic sound is extremely well engineered, as one would expect from a BBC radio broadcast. One hardly needs to look at the libretto to follow the main thrust of what people are singing. The singers generally show healthy vocal production and clear enunciation. Standouts include a young Owen Brannigan in the small role of the Host of the Garter Inn (a role he had sung in the 1946 season) and a consistently lovely and intelligent-sounding April Cantelo as Ann Page—one understands why several men in the play are attracted to her!

James Johnston had played Fenton during the opera’s first season at Sadler’s Wells, and he sings it here with clarity and power, clearly enjoying a tenor role that is more substantial than the idealized teenager that Verdi created as his Fenton. This eager lover is an appropriate match for Vaughan Williams’s Ann Page, who is herself more substantial than Verdi’s lighter-than-air Nanetta.

I found myself looking forward to the occasions when contralto Pamela Bowden, as Mistress Quickly, would next enter the scene and take command of the proceedings. John Cameron invests Ford with a splendid, Germont-quality baritone and eloquent acting skills that help one sympathize with this, in some ways, unsavory character. As for Roderick Jones, I kept forgetting that I was hearing a singer at all: each utterance seemed so true to character. How lucky for us that Jones’s reading of the title role got broadcast and “captured”!

( Click here for numerous excerpts from the 1956 recording. )

(And click here for the entire scene in Act 2, in that same recording, in which Master Ford, husband of Alice Ford but pretending to be a certain “Master Brook,” comes to make an offer to John Falstaff. The offer is that Falstaff, in exchange for some money from “Master Brook,” will seduce Mistress Ford “between ten and eleven” that same morning in order to cuckold Master Ford—i.e., the very man who, disguised to Falstaff, is making the offer. The whole plan is of course a trap for Sir John, set by Ford, his wife, and others. The dramatic effect in this recorded scene is so specifically conveyed by John Cameron, Roderick Jones, and the orchestra under Stanford Robinson that one can imagine the whole scene in one’s inner eye.)

Anybody who is seriously interested in Vaughan Williams, or in the challenges of setting a play to music, will be fascinated to listen to this recording and will take continuous pleasure in it.

Conductor Martin Yates has put together an orchestral suite from Sir John in Love (apparently based on a two-piano version by the composer). Of course the suite leaves out lots of wondrous stuff. A mid-way solution would be to listen to the cantata that Vaughan Williams himself drew from the opera in 1931: In Windsor Forest , which can be heard in recordings conducted by Norman Del Mar and (in an arrangement for women’s chorus) by David Willcocks.

There is also a broadcast recording of a stage performance of the opera on YouTube, featuring Owen Brannigan as a superb Falstaff, and with everyone articulating the words beautifully. Brian Priestman conducts with brisk authority. Alas, the voices are haloed by an ear-tiring echo.

Perhaps, in time, Sir John in Love will find its way into repertory status and thus become, finally, the first Shakespeare opera in English to command a wide audience. (The closest contender for that at the moment is Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—based on another comedy.) Why is this wonderful opera not more frequently performed?

Ralph P. Locke


The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. He edits Eastman Studies in Music, a book series published by University of Rochester Press.

   

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):