The Wasps

0 of 5 stars

Vaughan Williams
The Wasps [complete incidental music; Text by Aristophanes; English singing translation and narration by David Pountney]

Henry Goodman (narrator)

Hallé Choir (Men’s Voices)

Hallé Orchestra
Mark Elder

Recorded 26-28 July 2005 in the Albert Halls, Bolton

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: April 2006
(2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 46 minutes

Every three years since 1882, Cambridge University has staged one of the great works of classical Greek theatre, in the original language, and with music by composers connected with the University. In 1909 the chosen play was Aristophanes’s satire on the Athenian jury system, “The Wasps”, for which former student Ralph Vaughan Williams was asked to write the music. The overture has entered the repertoire, and the five-movement ‘Aristophanic Suite’ which the composer put together in 1912 is occasionally performed, but apart from a radio broadcast of the play in the early 1970s, this recording is the first time the entire score has been heard since that Cambridge University production.

The wasps of the title are a group of old soldiers whose main pleasure in life is volunteering for jury service, and sending down anyone they take a dislike to. Vaughan Williams would have enjoyed the earthy humour with which David Pountney’s English translation seeks out parallels with the bigotry and sleaze of our own day. As well as providing new lyrics for the vocal numbers, Pountney condenses the dialogue into a narration for a single actor, who plays both Procleon, one of the Wasps, and his slimy, smooth-talking son Anticleon.

Exasperated by his father’s jury addiction, Anticleon sets out to cure him. He manages to convince the other Wasps that they are being taken for a ride by the system, and persuades them to abandon their enthusiasm for jury service. To help his father cope with the withdrawal symptoms he sets up a court at his house, where a dog is tried for stealing cheese from the kitchen. The various utensils are summoned as witnesses, requiring the actor in Pountney’s version to impersonate a wok (I’m not making this up!). From then on the scenario becomes increasingly dotty, culminating in a ballet for dancing crabs (apparently a reference to the name of a prominent Athenian politician of the day) and other sea-creatures.

Vaughan Williams’s score runs to some eighty minutes of music, and ranges from brief scene-setting movements to longer set-pieces, including parts for male choir. The largest of these is the 21-minute ‘Parabasis’ (a kind of extended aside addressed to the audience) that ends Act Two, a big choral number in which the Wasps relive the heyday of their army career and vent their scorn for the modern world. It’s all projected with great panache and a lively sense of fun by Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra and Chorus, as is the whole score. The singing has the necessary earthy vigour, and the orchestral playing is incisive, sweetly lyrical or vividly atmospheric as required. Henry Goodman narrates with relish, though he is more convincing as the Alf Garnett-like Procleon than his Nigel Havers-accented son.

Of the numerous first recordings of Vaughan Williams to have appeared recently, this is undoubtedly the most important. It restores his first big theatre score to circulation (it’s published by Faber Music), enabling us to hear some familiar music in its original dramatic context. It also sheds an interesting side-light on Vaughan Williams at this stage in his career, revealing the future composer of “Sir John in Love” and “Five Tudor Portraits” clearly enjoying himself. Elder and colleagues do him proud.

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