A Village Romeo and Juliet – Lyric drama in six scenes to an English libretto by the composer and Jelka Delius based on a short story ‘Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe’ by Gottfried Keller
Vreli – Anna Devin
Sali – Joshua Ellicott
Manz – Christopher Maltman
Marti – Andrew Shore
The Dark Fiddler – David Wilson-Johnson
Vreli as a young girl – Sarah Young
Sali as a young boy – Alex Karlsson
Robyn Allegra Parton & Nathalie Chalkley (sopranos), Chloe de Backer (mezzo-soprano), Julian Forbes (tenor), Alex Ashworth (baritone) & Alistair Ollerenshaw (bass-baritone)
The London Chorus
The New London Orchestra
Reviewed by: Graham Rogers
Reviewed: 25 September, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
A Village Romeo and Juliet is the most well-known of Delius’s six operas – but, apart from its famous orchestral interlude, ‘The Walk to the Paradise Garden’, most people are as well acquainted with the complete score as they are with, say, Massenet’s Thaïs. Written in 1901, premiered in Berlin in 1907 and at Covent Garden under Thomas Beecham in 1910, Delius’s setting of Gottfried Keller’s tale of the doomed love of children from opposing rural Swiss families ruined through bitter land disputes, all-but vanished into obscurity.
Yet, fans as distinguished and diverse as Deryck Cooke and Julian Lloyd Webber have consistently held the opera up as an unjustly neglected gem – so it was good, in the 150th-anniversary year of the composer’s birth, to have a rare opportunity to judge for ourselves, thanks to the dedication of Ronald Corp (and the financial backing of the Delius Trust).
Corp’s unindulgent reading, though sometimes lacking definition, revealed a vibrant score full of drama – giving the lie to the common impression of Delius’s music as no more than soft-focus pastoral fare. The chamber-sized forces of the New London Orchestra adequately filled the venue, but a few more strings would have done greater justice to the richer moments of Delius’s often sumptuous – but never cloying – score.
Christopher Maltman’s name on the bill may have been a big draw (the hall was respectably full, with members of the Delius Society out in force), but his well-sung cameo as one of the warring fathers was disappointingly brief. Fresh and clear-voiced, young up-comers Anna Devin and Joshua Ellicott were a well-matched pair of lovers. Astonishingly, Ellicott learnt his entire part at only a week’s notice, standing in for the indisposed Andrew Staples. With his vast English repertoire experience, David Wilson-Johnson was a powerful presence as the haunting Dark Fiddler.
Given the use of scores on music stands – always a barrier to full engagement with the audience – the cast conveyed their roles well enough; but their greater familiarity with the music would have produced a freer, more confident and affecting performance.
As to the music itself, a paucity of really memorable melodic material probably precludes it from being the masterpiece that some claim it to be – but there is nevertheless much to appreciate in the inventive and attractive score. In Corp’s hands the vibrant fairground scene was the most attention-grabbing; his moderately brisk canter through the Paradise Garden was still a sensitive affair, and the bittersweet denouement was emotionally moving.
Ronald Corp is to be congratulated on an impressive achievement, allowing us the chance to savour one of Delius’s greatest works – but, however successful, a concert performance can never do this stage-work full justice. Charles Mackerras’s death in 2010 deprived us of a Royal Opera production which he had been slated to conduct, but anyone curious to experience this opera in the theatre should head to Wexford, where it is part of this year’s Festival.