Post-War British Opera, Part One
By Joel Kasow
-- 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.
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.
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
you think that composersí recordings possess more than simply documentary
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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