Gabriel – Zoë South
Mary – Catrine Kirkman
Joseph – Nicholas Lester
Herod – Mark van Meents
Herodias – Ruth Elleson
Jem / Zarathustra – Chris Cann
Sym / Nubar – Philip Hayes
Dave / Merlin – Graham Rogers
Believer – Megan Currier
Unbeliever / Calchas – Ashley Mercer
First Angel / First Townswoman – Sally Hewitt
Second Angel / Second Townswoman – Fay Talbot

Chorus and Orchestra of the New London Opera Group
Benjamin Ellin

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 December, 2005
Venue: Holy Trinity Church, Prince Consort Road, London

The Glastonbury Festival that we know today was very different from that which flourished between 1914 and 1926 – when, under the aegis of Rutland Boughton, it was an experiment in community-based opera that gave rise to seven ‘choral dramas’. The first of these, “The Immortal Hour”, remains the best known – though its follow-up, “Bethlehem”, probably achieved even more widespread success in its day: indeed, it was Boughton’s insistence on staging the work as ‘socialist versus capitalist’ morality in 1926 that led to a major withdrawal of funding and the effective cessation of the festival in 1927.

Today, its political dimension seems as quaint as does much of the ‘radical’ ideology of its era, and hardly a barrier in staging or appreciating the piece itself. Adapted from the Coventry Nativity Play, “Bethlehem” follows a narrative trajectory very similar to that of “L’Enfance du Christ” – and makes an analogy with the modally-inflected content of Berlioz’s masterpiece through an emphasis on folksong-like melodies that, in common with Vaughan Williams and Holst (and most likely the early, unpublished stage-works of Tippett), was the basis for British music-drama in the three decades before Britten’s started work in the genre.

While this gives much of the music its intentional immediacy, it also hampers its expressive potency – notably in Act One, where the story from the Angel Gabriel’s visitation to the shepherd’s greeting is related in terms that are direct but disconcertingly anodyne in dramatic impact. The first scene of Act Two makes good something of this deficiency – in its intercutting of the three ‘wizards’ (i.e. – wise men) with elements of a volatile crowd and, above all, the arrival of Herod in an scena whose histrionic fervour almost propels the work onto an operatic level. The reappearance of the angel and preparation for the ‘Flight into Egypt’ then closes proceedings in a logical if anti-climactic fashion.

No masterpiece, then, but an assured treatment of ‘the greatest story ever told’ that retains much of its honesty and pathos today. And this performance, by the New London Opera Group, conveyed these qualities over and above its undoubted limitations. Solo singing was variable, but Zoë South was a thoughtful, understated Gabriel, with Catrine Kirkman’s small but elegant voice well suited to Mary and Nicholas Lester a strong-willed but humane Joseph. The trio of cloth-capped Shepherds, who became be-suited Wise Men, were a characterful if vocally rough-edged bunch, and there were telling cameos from Megan Currier and Ashley Mercer as Believer and Unbeliever respectively. Mark van Meents stole the show – as indeed he should – with a portrayal of Herod whose stark ruthlessness, concealing a pathological fear, was made manifest in a dramatic span that could yet find favour out of context.

The chorus acquitted itself well – not least in the carols, lushly if fussily harmonised, which separate scenes in place of the expected entr’actes (something Tippett may have drawn upon in the spirituals that fulfil a similar function in “A Child of Our Time”), while the numerous offstage contributions had the right ‘angelic’ quality. Orchestral playing was generally less secure though rarely so much as to undermine either the vocal contributions or the unfolding drama. To this end, Benjamin Ellin directed with no mean appreciation of theatrical momentum, and went some way to encouraging performers to project beyond the unfocused ambience though highly appropriate setting of Holy Trinity Church.

Summing up, this was a capable performance of a work which, if its claims on today’s repertoire are hardly overwhelming, has enough musical and dramatic substance to warrant its periodic revival by a dedicated company such as the New London Opera Group, which can take credit for raising the profile of “Bethlehem” – and, should the intention be a traversal of Boughton’s other ‘choral dramas’ over the next few years, then its efforts on behalf of this notable – if notably uneven – composer will be deserving of support.

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