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

After Silence: VOCES8

‘After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ Aldous Huxley’s words have inspired VOCES8’s new disc, After Silence, a ‘double album in four chapters’ which marks the ensemble’s 15th anniversary.

Beethoven's Songs and Folksongs: Bostridge and Pappano

A song-cycle is a narrative, a journey, not necessarily literal or linear, but one which carries performer and listener through time and across an emotional terrain. Through complement and contrast, poetry and music crystallise diverse sentiments and somehow cohere variability into an aesthetic unity.

Flax and Fire: a terrific debut recital-disc from tenor Stuart Jackson

One of the nicest things about being lucky enough to enjoy opera, music and theatre, week in week out, in London’s fringe theatres, music conservatoires, and international concert halls and opera houses, is the opportunity to encounter striking performances by young talented musicians and then watch with pleasure as they fulfil those sparks of promise.

Carlisle Floyd's Prince of Players: a world premiere recording

“It’s forbidden, and where’s the art in that?”

John F. Larchet's Complete Songs and Airs: in conversation with Niall Kinsella

Dublin-born John F. Larchet (1884-1967) might well be described as the father of post-Independence Irish music, given the immense influenced that he had upon Irish musical life during the first half of the 20th century - as a composer, musician, administrator and teacher.

Haddon Hall: 'Sullivan sans Gilbert' does not disappoint thanks to the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Andrews

The English Civil War is raging. The daughter of a Puritan aristocrat has fallen in love with the son of a Royalist supporter of the House of Stuart. Will love triumph over political expediency and religious dogma?

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Choral Fantasy from Harmonia Mundi

Beethoven Symphony no 9 (the Choral Symphony) in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.

Taking Risks with Barbara Hannigan

A Louise Brooks look-a-like, in bobbed black wig and floor-sweeping leather trench-coat, cheeks purple-rouged and eyes shadowed in black, Barbara Hannigan issues taut gestures which elicit fire-cracker punch from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies (Vol.2) - in conversation with Adrian Bradbury

‘Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from Beatrice di Tenda had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country.’

Those Blue Remembered Hills: Roderick Williams sings Gurney and Howells

Baritone Roderick Williams seems to have been a pretty constant ‘companion’, on my laptop screen and through my stereo speakers, during the past few ‘lock-down’ months.

Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein almost rescue Strauss’s Enoch Arden

Melodramas can be a difficult genre for composers. Before Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden the concept of the melodrama was its compact size – Weber’s Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz, Georg Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea or even Leonore’s grave scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis: The Choir of Keble College Oxford and the AAM

In the annals of musical controversies, the Missa Scala Aretina debate does not have the notoriety of the Querelle des Bouffons, the Monteverdi-Artusi spat, or the audience-shocking premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Two song cycles by Sir Arthur Somervell: Roderick Williams and Susie Allan

Robert Browning, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A.E. Housman … the list of those whose work Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) set to music, in his five song-cycles, reads like a roll call of Victorian poetry - excepting the Edwardian Housman.

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.

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):