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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.

   

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