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 Reviews

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.

Music for a While: Rowan Pierce and Christopher Glynn at Ryedale Online

“Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile.”

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.

A Musical Reunion at Garsington Opera

The hum of bees rising from myriad scented blooms; gentle strains of birdsong; the cheerful chatter of picnickers beside a still lake; decorous thwacks of leather on willow; song and music floating through the warm evening air.

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.’

'In my end is my beginning': Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida perform Winterreise at Wigmore Hall

All good things come to an end, so they say. Let’s hope that only the ‘good thing’ part of the adage is ever applied to Wigmore Hall, and that there is never any sign of ‘an end’.

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.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny bring 'sweet music' to Wigmore Hall

Countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny kicked off the final week of live lunchtime recitals broadcast online and on radio from Wigmore Hall.

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.

From Our House to Your House: live from the Royal Opera House

I’m not ashamed to confess that I watched this live performance, streamed from the stage of the Royal Opera House, with a tear in my eye.

Woman’s Hour with Roderick Williams and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

At the start of this lunchtime recital, Roderick Williams set out the rationale behind the programme that he and pianist Joseph Middleton presented at Wigmore Hall, bringing to a close a second terrific week of live lunchtime broadcasts, freely accessible via Wigmore Hall’s YouTube channel and BBC Radio 3.

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.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

02 Dec 2018

Stanford's The Travelling Companion: a compelling production by New Sussex Opera

The first performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s ninth and final opera The Travelling Companion was given by an enthusiastic troupe of Liverpudlian amateurs at the David Lewis Theatre - Liverpool’s ‘Old Vic’ - in April 1925, nine years after it was completed, eight after it won a Carnegie Award, and one year after the composer’s death.

Charles Villiers Stanford’s The Travelling Companion: New Sussex Opera at Cadogan Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

 

The production was not well received by the Musical Times’ reviewer (June 1925), who noted that the company deserved ‘every praise for their enterprise and, generally, for their good intentions’ in electing to present an opera which was unduly neglected and for their ‘get things done’ spirit, but felt that the production failed to reach artistic heights: ‘The actual task, however, proved beyond their capacity - partly through lack of rehearsals. With a more careful and thorough preparation they would have succeeded far better; but other interests had apparently more serious claims on their time, and the opera suffered in consequence.’

Thorough preparation, as well as significant talent, vision and accomplishment - allied with a ‘get things done’ pragmatism - characterised this semi-staged performance, at Cadogan Hall, by New Sussex Opera - a community-based company now in its fortieth year which, as this production attests, brings together professionals, enthusiasts and volunteers to sterling effect. And, with bravery and commitment.

The libretto of The Travelling Companion is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, as adapted by Henry Newbolt. It’s a blend ofThe Magic Flute and Turandot, Parsifal and The Pilgrim’s Progress. No wonder it flummoxed early listeners. John, made destitute by the death of his father, shelters from a storm in a church, interrupting two reprobates who are ransacking a grave. John stops the robbers’ sacrilegious pillage by giving them his last pennies. His selflessness raises the dead man’s spirit, and the latter escorts and guides John as he woos a beautiful Princess whose previous suitors have sacrificed their lives in failing to correctly answer her courtship riddle. The Princess is psychologically enslaved by a Wizard, but the latter is slain by the Traveller who passes on the secret answer to John and who thus wins her hand in marriage. Upon the fortuitous denouement and marriage, the Companion returns to whence he came.

It’s a tale not without enchantment, but the characterisation is often one-dimensional: the motivation of the Princess and her father, who is determined that she must marry, is ambiguous and the Wizard himself is the epitome of cartoon cliché. Moreover, since the Travelling Companion defeats him in Act 3 by slicing off his head, it’s not clear why or how the Wizard still manages to compel the Princess to continue with the riddle-ritual in which her suitors must identify the focus of her thoughts … nevertheless, the severed head, bloodily flourished from a hessian sack on this occasion, does the trick for John.

Director Paul Higgins sets the opera at the time of its composition, which seems reasonable enough. But, the Freudian effusiveness of Higgins’ programme note - which grabs by the scruff of their collective necks, and attempts to cohere, Arthur Rackham’s 1909 illustrations of the tales of the Grimm Brothers, the Land Girls’ Army, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, Egon Schiele’s sexually explicit art, and the notion that the Princess ‘would have been drawn to the cult-like figure of an artist-cum-therapist promising an alternative way of living’ - is less coherent.

The production doesn’t overcome all the libretto’s short-comings. Act 3 - in which we were transported to a Wizard’s den is inhabited by the ugly 'Pied Piper' himself and his entourage of dancing nymphets and ghastly goblins - disrupts the dramatic narrative and seems merely an excuse for Stanford to indulge in lengthy symphonic episodes. Isabella van Braeckal’s designs, elsewhere so economical, were less than helpful here and exacerbated the problems. Rather than allowing us simply to ‘imagine’ during the long instrumental interludes we treated to much scenery shifting to supplement Stanford’s kinetic side-show. Ian Beadle’s long-locked Wizard perched atop a step-ladder, cartoon-choreographing the pseudo-erotic squirming and silk-waving of the sinuous dancers with flourishes of his wand-less hands; while the chorus of gremlins, cloaked in red and black, stood inertly staring at the choreographic indulgences. The Wizard would have had a bit more authority if the front of his shirt hadn’t been lopped away, leaving an absent bib-shaped hole.

Moreover, given that, in the absence of a pit, the orchestra took up half of the stage, with space for the chorus to hover behind, the front-stage seemed unnecessarily cluttered with props, especially as Tom Turner’s lighting was so economical, effective and enchanting. A vivid ultramarine floor-square created the strangeness of a world bathed in otherworldly moonlight in Act 1, and while a ‘coffin’ might be useful, the addition of benches (church pews?) simply made for lots of to-ing and fro-ing by the scene-shifters. Such stage re-furnishing was repeatedly disruptive during the lengthy instrumental preludes and interludes. During Act 2’s Palace Square scene, the transmuting colours effectively conveyed evolving moods. The blood-red glow that bathed the stage told us all we needed to know about the Wizard’s machinations: and the easels, stepladders, chiffon drapes and other paraphernalia simply resulted in cumbersome stage business. Higgins could surely have trusted the music to do its work.

But, if there was slightly too much stage clutter at times, and Act 3 went slightly off the musico-dramatic rails - a skid-route unhelpfully delineated by Stanford himself - then musically and vocally, this production set off and stayed on a straight path, driven by engaging vocal performances and convincing dramaturgy.

One thing that was instantly noticeable was the excellent diction of both soloists and chorus; there were no surtitles at Cadogan Hall, though the facility exists, so perhaps costs were prohibitive, or Higgins and conductor Toby Purser just trusted all to deliver the text cleanly and directly, as they did.

Cast of Travelling Companion.jpgCast of NSO’s The Travelling Companion.

Most powerful was the central relationship between David Horton’s John and Julien van Mellaert’s Traveller; this is the core of the opera and the two singers made the connection both unsettling and utterly convincing. Horton’s John was literally thrown onto the stage by an explosion of musical and visual thunder at the start of Act 1. His wonderfully expressive diction, lovely tone and strong characterisation were heart-warming: we were ‘with him’ from the first, and if occasionally he strayed a little sharp when pushing towards the end of phrases, then Horton’s commitment ensured that such minor blemishes would be forgiven.

Van Mellaerts has impressed many times of late - not least last year at the RCM’s French double bill , which followed the baritone’s Kathleen Ferrier Award First Prize. Surely a big break is beckoning. As the resurrected Fairy Godfather, Van Mellaerts used his lovely, beguiling tone and dramatic nous to make us warm to this Nick Shadow with good intentions. His stage presence was finely judged: so often he appeared in a blink, leaning against a wall, hovering at the rear, meandering through the crowd.

As the Princess, Kate Valentine sang with a fervour which was perhaps a little unalleviated, but no less impressive for that. Ian Beadle and Felix Kemp were splendid Ruffians, forming a dark and sumptuous blend which overcame the blandness of Stanford’s musical characterisation of the drama-triggering villains; and, as Beadle summoned authority as the wicked Wizard, so Kemp was appropriately stentorian and clear as the Herald. The role of the Princess’s Father is a tricky one dramatically, but Pauls Putnins effected a nice shift from sternness to evidently warm affection. The fairly small orchestra forces couldn’t really do justice to Stanford’s quasi-Wagnerian intentions and aspirations, but that mattered not the least. The Irish composer’s aspirations actually remain just that, and the NSO Orchestra were secure throughout, with lovely exploitation of the emotional dramas embodied by the low, grainy woodwind groupings. Solo cellist Keiron Carter, harpist Isabel Harries and timpani/percussionists Edward Scull and Ryan Hepburn added considerable expressive colour and sentiment.

Conductor Toby Purser had the full measure of the score. The overture summoned the innocence and idealism of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel - we knew a happy ending would be assured - and if there were not perhaps of sufficient number to sculpt the ideal strength of sound to convey Stanford’s own Wagnerian ambitions, then the tone of the NSO Chorus was warm and the balance between instrumentalists and choral and solo singers was consistently excellent. Purser energised his chorus, and shaped the instrumental lines consummately and without undue fuss. Even though Standford’s rhythms are rather unmalleable, Purser found the fluidity which was needed to keep things ticking along. His leadership was an example of the sort of preparation, proficiency and good engagement with musical colleagues that companies such as NSO need but don’t always get.

Stanford’s The Travelling Companion is melodious if not very memorable. One senses that Stanford had the weapons in his arsenal to produce an excellent opera but failed to get all guns firing at the same time. That said, the large audience at Cadogan Hall were loud-voiced in their praise and appreciation. We should be grateful to NSO for giving us the chance to hear this opera which undoubtedly has merits and appeal. Perhaps we can hope for a production by one of the larger houses or festivals - at Wexford perhaps?

Claire Seymour

Stanford: The Travelling Companiont

John - David Horton, The Travelling Companion - Julien Van Mellaerts, The Princess - Kate Valentine, The King - Pauls Putnins, The Wizard/Ruffian - Ian Beadle, The Herald/Ruffian - Felix Kemp, Two Girls - Tamzin Barnett/Lucy Urquhart; Director - Paul Higgins, Conductor - Toby Purser, Designer - Isabella Van Braeckal, Lighting Designer - Tom Turner, Choreographer - Roseanna Anderson, NSO Orchestra and Chorus.

Cadogan Hall, London; Friday 30th November 2018.

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):