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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.

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