Lebenstanz & Margot La Rouge

Lebenstanz [Life’s Dance]
Margot la Rouge – Lyric drama in one act

Margot la Rouge – Susan Bullock
Sergeant Thibault – John Hudson
L’Artiste – Jared Holt
Lili Béguin – Janis Kelly
Nini / First Woman – Lynne Dawson
Second Woman – Nicole Tibbels
La Patronne / Third Woman – Elizabeth Sikora
First Drinker / First Soldier – Stuart MacIntyre
Second Drinker / Second Soldier – Edward Price
La Poigne / Waiter – Owen Gilhooly
Totor / Police Inspector / Third Drinker – Matthew Rose

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Lloyd-Jones

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 June, 2006
Venue: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London

A fine BBC Symphony Orchestra Studio Concert of rare Delius pieces appreciably performed to a capacity audience.

Lebenstanz (1899) went through several revisions until Delius was finally satisfied with it. That was in 1912 and he thought it one of his best works, and rightly so. Inspired by a play by Delius’s Danish friend Helge Rode, Lebenstanz is a satisfyingly complex piece and also one that immediately takes the listener into life’s “joy, energy [and] great striving of youth…” – so relayed Delius’s wife, Jelka, to Eric Fenby, the composer’s amanuensis. With sometimes more than a nod to Liszt, who had initiated the concept of the symphonic poem, and to both Richard Strauss and Wagner, Delius’s sense of ‘orchestral theatre’, while occasionally melodramatic, is of many moods and intuitively personal – from languorously evocative to orgiastic. This performance, conducted by David Lloyd-Jones, found a just balance between Delius’s fulsome scoring and the work’s suggestive power, and exuded a feeling of rightness to justify Delius’s own regard for his creation.

Whether “Margot la Rouge” (1901-02), written as a competition entry, is quite as notable is more debatable. There is certainly some lovely atmospheric and emotional music, which, from the outset, is magically suggestive of Paris, a locale known first-hand to Delius (and with musical parallels to Puccini who was similarly adept at evoking time and place). There is much to relish in Delius’s lyrical writing and, not least, his orchestration, which is ravishing, picturesque, descriptive and wholly characteristic.

For some time, though, Delius’s original score (which neither succeeded in its competitive purpose nor was performed during Delius’s lifetime) was believed lost. Not until 1981 was “Margot la Rouge” heard (although a vocal score had been published at the time of composition with a piano reduction by Ravel, no less) – that was a BBC enterprise conducted by Norman Del Mar using, then, a reconstruction by Fenby (who had previously been directed by Delius to use parts of ‘Margot’ for his 1930-32 Walt Whitman setting, “Idyll”). Shortly after Fenby had effected his edition of ‘Margot’, Delius’s original was found and was the basis of the stage premiere (in St Louis under Fenby) in 1983 and, of course, for the current rendition.

In the BBC studio setting the performers worked wonders to establish some drama and the French libretto and an English translation was supplied. Delius was quite extravagant in requiring 11 singers for 18 characters for a (here) 42-minute work, and several of the participants have little to do. In a staged production ‘Margot’ would pair nicely with Puccini’s Seine-related “Il tabarro”, and it would be fascinating for ‘Margot’ to undergo the ‘workshop’ treatment – hear it first in black-and-white terms (i.e. in Ravel’s piano reduction), then in Fenby’s reconstruction and, finally, in Delius’s original scoring, or vice versa, maybe.

A simple enough story unfolds, one with a tragic conclusion, a denouement that follows renewed love between Margot and Thibault (some of the work’s most heartfelt and burgeoning music occurs here). Margot already has claims on The Artist (whose hands are more deadly that painterly) and he is also fancied by Lili. John Hudson was warmly expressive as Thibault, and Susan Bullock presented Margot as someone sympathetic and well-matched to him.

If not all the singers projected ideally, there was an admirable focus of unfolding this compact example of verismo, and David Lloyd-Jones ensured ideal pacing and a detailed and beguiling response from the BBCSO. Some re-takes were deemed necessary for the opera (surprisingly, the audience was requested to leave beforehand – not the common procedure for these Studio Concerts – which maybe changed the acoustic somewhat and dropping ‘patches’ into such seamlessly entwined music can’t be easy). The broadcasts (believed to be the first of ‘Margot’ in the original scoring) will certainly be worth catching.

  • Both performances to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 – Lebenstanz during “Afternoon Performance” on 5 July (from 2.15 p.m.), and Margo la Rouge on 8 July in “Opera on 3” at 6.30 p.m.

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