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Post-War British Opera, Part One

By Joel Kasow

PARIS -- The success of Peter Grimes at the time of its creation in 1945 was sufficient to encourage the BBC to commission an opera from William Walton, while Michael Tippett was motivated to begin the long gestation of his first opera. Brittenís first operatic venture surprised audiences in 1945 who were totally unprepared for a stage work of such power and intensity, almost singlehandedly starting a new era in British music. Previous 20th century attempts had been inconclusive, the most musically significant being Delius, and then only because he had the advantage of Sir Thomas Beecham as an impassioned advocate.

Peter Grimes has now been accepted into the international repertoire, and is probably the most recorded opera of the last fifty years with four versions now available.

The competition is tough, a high standard having been set by the first recording (Decca 1959) with the composer as his own advocate and the creator of the title role, the unique Peter Pears, still a convincing protagonist. Almost two decades later, Colin Davis and Jon Vickers (Philips 1978) set down a forceful interpretation very different in approach which was far from winning the composerís approval. Another fifteen years passed before EMI took the Royal Opera House forces into the studio for the third time, now under the baton of Bernard Haitink, and once again we can hear an orchestra and chorus which have lived with this music almost since its creation. A virtually ideal cast is headed by Antony Rolfe Johnson, Felicity Lott and Thomas Allen while Haitink gives symphonic support. The newest contender is a Chandos recording conducted by Richard Hickox (are they starting a new series?) with Philip Langridge in the title role, once again performers with impeccable Britten credentials, and it becomes increasingly difficult to recommend any one version. Each has special qualities or offers a vision of the work which sheds new light. Although Hickox demonstrates unusual mastery, the absence of theatrical atmosphere works against him, this being the only recording made outside the theatre. Janice Watson and Alan Opie offer impressive support while the excellent Langridge is not always totally convincing. In fact, neither of the two recent heroes effaces memories of the two tenors who so indelibly marked the title role. Factors which might influence your purchasing decisions are the three discs for the composer's recording against two for all the others, and the fact that the Vickers-Davis version is on a mid-price reissue. It's a touch choice, but I would say you should acquire the last-named and at least one of the others to have a good idea of the interpretative range.

The Turn of the Screw, written for the English Opera Group and premiered in Venice in 1954, has recently had the honors of a third recording and, here too, faces tough competition. The composer recorded the opera (in primitive stereo) with the first cast shortly after the premiere with the unforgettable Jennifer Vyvyan as the Governess, Peter Pears as both Quint and the Narrator and the later to be famous David Hemmings as Miles (Decca). Some twenty years later Colin Davis recorded a version, just reissued by Philips on CD, once again a thoughtful complement to the composerís document. An almost ideal cast is led by Helen Donath as the Governess, with Robert Tear and Philip Langridge, Ava June, Heather Harper and Michael Ginn. Only Lilian Watson disappoints as she sounds too mature for the role of Flora. Collins has embarked on a complete Britten edition under the leadership of Steuart Bedford - a conductor who would prefer not to be ghettoized despite his close connection with the composer. Eileen Hulse as a too mature Flora and Sam Pay as an insufficiently characterized Miles are offset by the masterful performances of Philip Langridge and Felicity Lott with the intense support of Bedford. Once again, choice is impossible, even when we place the 40-year-old composerís document in a separate category.

tippetMichael Tippettís Midsummer Marriage has always had a bad press for its supposedly incomprehensible libretto, but this is utter nonsense when one looks at what is willingly swallowed by the opera-going public in many another opera. If we were to dismiss the work on these grounds, moreover, we would be missing one of the superb lyrical effusions of the 20th century. Philips has inexplicably ceded its rights to Lyrita (or are they planning a new recording based on this yearís Covent Garden revival?), but we must be grateful for the return of this masterpiece, superlatively conducted by Sir Colin Davis and with a cast led by such British stalwarts of the 70s as Joan Carlyle, Elizabeth Harwood, Helen Watts, Alberto Remedios, Stuart Burrows and Raimund Herinckx. A must.

Troilus and Cressida, the sole full-length opera of the third member of this triumvirate, premiered in 1953 to mixed reviews, with the composer making cuts at subsequent revivals in 1954 and 1955, culminating in the wholesale revision in the early 1970s to accommodate the role of Cressida for Janet Baker as well as making several further excisions. It is that version, reworked to the original soprano tessitura, which Chandos recorded at the time of the revival by Opera North in 1994. If you are unfamiliar with the Baker-Richard Cassilly-Lawrence Foster recording (EMI 1973, recently reissued), you will be surprised by a technicolor work by a composer with wide cinematic experience, capable of lush romanticism to express the yearning of Troilus or the sensuality of Cressida. Once again Richard Hickox demonstrates his affinity with the music of his compatriots; Judith Howarth and Arthur Davies are capable of expressing the youthful ardour of their roles, but the requisite heft is not part of their vocal armory. For this we have to turn to another EMI reissue of excerpts made shortly after the premiere with the composer conducting and the title roles sung by first-cast Richard Lewis and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Unfortunately there is only a 90-second extract (borrowed from Decca) with the original Pandarus, Peter Pears, who is far more effective than either of his successors. The remaining roles were reduced to ciphers during the revisions so that little is needed other than a virile baritone for Diomede, an imposing bass for Calchas and a solid alto for Evadne, requirements which are variously met in the complete recordings. Hickox and Foster are in total control so that choice boils down to the youthful protagonists on Chandos or Baker the tragedian and the occasionally inelegant Cassilly on EMI. In no case should one pass up the early disc of highlights for the exotic Schwarzkopf and authoritative Lewis.

Part Two will discuss recordings of British operas of the last ten years.

Do you think that composersí recordings possess more than simply documentary value?

What do you think about the Pears-Vickers opposition in the role of Peter Grimes?

There is a website for the Britten archive which is still under construction but should be impressive when completed. I would suggest checking it periodically.

The other two composers under consideration are only visible on some of the compendium sites which offer biographies or work lists. Please let us know if you come across some websites which you find noteworthy.


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