“I know of no music more hauntingly beautiful than this”, wrote the eminent musicologist Deryck Cooke in 1973. He was referring to A Village Romeo and Juliet, fourth and best of English composer Frederick Delius’s six operas. Cooke judged the opera “shamefully neglected and under-rated”, and “amongst the greatest works of the whole late romantic period.”
Despite Cooke's enthusiasm, however, and the espousal of outstanding Delius conductors such as Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Charles Mackerras (both of whom made complete recordings of the opera), A Village Romeo and Juliet has remained a rarity in British opera houses since its first London performance in 1910.
Plans for a new production of the opera at Covent Garden in 2011, the first in over a century, were shelved when Sir Charles Mackerras, instigator of the project, died while it was still in development.
Lovers of Delius's music need not despair, however: conductor Ronald Corp will lead a concert performance of A Village Romeo and Juliet, featuring the New London Orchestra and a distinguished group of soloists, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s Southbank Centre, on Tuesday 25 September 2012.
Ronald Corp is an acclaimed interpreter of British music, of which he has made many successful recordings. He is a specialist in rehabilitating neglected repertoire, including opera: his recent recording of Rutland Boughton's The Queen of Cornwall drew highly positive reactions, and was nominated "Disc of the Month" in Opera magazine and "Editor's Choice" in Gramophone.
Corp's Southbank presentation of A Village Romeo and Juliet will be the only UK performance of the work in this sesquicentennial year of Delius’s birth, and is an operatic event of major importance.
A Village Romeo and Juliet was completed in 1901 as Delius approached his fortieth birthday, and is one of the first works to reveal fully the composer's distinctive musical genius. Ronald Corp has no doubts about the stature of the opera. “It’s a masterpiece”, he comments. "It is incredibly heartfelt and sure-footed, and Delius displays a great sense of theatrical flair in his re-telling of the story”.
Corp's positive assessment of the opera’s quality is shared by others who have written about it. When A Village Romeo and Juliet was staged at Sadler’s Wells in 1962 to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Delius’s birth, the critics were similarly enthusiastic. "A work of indisputable beauty and dramatic validity", was David Cairns's verdict, while Desmond Shawe-Taylor spoke of the opera's "strong thematic material" and "natural vitality". Peter Heyworth commented on how Delius "enfolds his lovers in music of great tenderness", and John Warrack wrote that "the taste which the work leaves in the mind is pervasive and seductive".
Delius based his libretto for A Village Romeo and Juliet on a story by the nineteenth-century Swiss writer Gottfried Keller. Its tale of Sali and Vreli, young lovers thwarted by their uncomprehending and graspingly materialistic fathers, struck a chord deep in Delius's own profoundly romantic sensibility. It drew from him music of a passionate and richly lyrical nature, including the well-known orchestral interlude ‘The Walk to the Paradise Garden’, often performed and recorded separately.
So intense is Delius's inspiration in A Village Romeo and Juliet that the opera has often been compared to Wagner's erotic masterpiece Tristan und Isolde. While agreeing that Delius's music is "sometimes Wagnerian", Ronald Corp points to the other influences which make the score so distinctive.
"Delius’s soundworld is unique and I love its range of expression", Corp comments. "He can be sometimes lush and sensuous, with harmonies that ooze and melt into one another, but he can be big-boned and craggy. He can be folksy and he can be classical and formal. His soundworld is a late romantic roller-coaster."
Delius divided A Village Romeo and Juliet into six separate sections, and the practical difficulties of representing these different scenarios adequately in a full operatic production is one reason why the opera is staged so infrequently. Ronald Corp acknowledges "the challenge of staging it convincingly, because it is scenic and not full of action.”
Corp is convinced that a concert performance of A Village Romeo and Juliet, by avoiding the logistical problems involved in a full staging, can be a particular advantage in allowing the audience to focus specifically on the musical quality of Delius's opera, with no extraneous physical distractions. "I hope our performance will show people that the work is a masterpiece, will convert the public to Delius and convince opera companies that they should add it to their repertory."
A high-quality team of vocal soloists has been assembled for Corp's performance, and he is understandably enthusiastic about the singers he will be working with. "We have two young singers as the lovers who are emerging as great operatic talents", he comments, "and three experienced baritones who will bring the necessary gravitas to their roles as more senior characters in the action". Tenor Joshua Ellicott (replacing Andrew Staples) will sing the role of Sali, son of Manz the farmer. Vrenchen, whom Sali falls in love with, is sung by Irish soprano Anne Devin. Anne is currently a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, where she has appeared in productions of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, Puccini's Il Trittico, and Mozart's Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte.
The parts of Manz and Marti, the fathers of the young lovers, are taken by the highly distinguished pairing of baritones Christopher Maltman and Andrew Shore. The role of The Dark Fiddler, a shady character who is the rightful owner of the plot of land disputed in the opera, is sung by the vastly experienced baritone David Wilson-Johnson, a seasoned performer on the international operatic circuit.
"A dream cast of English music specialists", is Ronald Corp's summary of the cast he has at his disposal for this performance of A Village Romeo and Juliet. He regards the specialist knowledge his singers will bring to the project as crucial in doing justice to a composer who, he says, is still "misunderstood", partly because "too few conductors promote him."
While Delius's harmonic style has much in common with that of Grainger, Grieg, Debussy, Roussel and Warlock, Corp emphasises that he is a unique composer, who ultimately sounds totally unlike any other. "He is not always an ‘immediate’ composer", Corp comments. "You have to work a bit to get the full reward. His music falls into a limbo until someone specifically wants to champion it".
In the 150th anniversary year of Delius’s birth, A Village Romeo and Juliet has, in Ronald Corp, found a true champion who is passionate about the opera. "It's a scandal that this piece has not been heard in London in the last half-century", he says. "Whatever pre-conceptions you have about Delius’s music, give this a try because it will blow you mind. This is Wagner's Parsifal, this is Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, this is Roussel's Padmavati – but not like any of them!"
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