Hugh the Drover, or Love in the Stocks – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by Harold Child [sung in English to a reduced orchestration by Oliver John Ruthven]
Cheap-Jack/Ballad Seller – Paul Garver
Robert – Geoffrey Wallis
Primrose Seller – Antonia Gentile
Showman – Chris Cann
Ballad seller – Paul Garver
Susan – Annabella Stevens
Nancy – Sally Avery
William – Laurence Crutchlow
Mary – Victoria Mulley
Aunt Jane – Helena Culliney
Turnkey – Daria Robertson
Constable – Rob Sanders Hewett
John the Butcher – Tony Bannister
Hugh the Drover – Philip Clieve
Sergeant – Adam Jordan
Chorus & Orchestra of New London Opera Group
Chris Cann – Director
Eirian Walsh Atkins & Lucy Harrold – Costumes
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 19 January, 2023
Venue: Holy Trinity Church, Prince Consort Road, Kensington, London
New London Opera Group’s presentation of Vaughan Williams’s Hugh the Drover is a welcome and presumably late tribute to the composer in his 150th-anniversary year in 2022. He said that he wanted to set a boxing match to music for Covent Garden – the latter part of that ambition still unfulfilled – but perhaps it is not much less of an ironic achievement for that fight to be staged now in a London church. The opera’s backdrop of the Napoleonic wars (it is set in a Cotswold town in 1812) with the fear of foreign spies and subsequent invasion had particular resonances in the years leading up to 1914 when Vaughan Williams sketched the music. It wasn’t premiered, however, until 1924 in a semi-private rendition at the Royal College of Music (just across the street from these present performances) and then transferred to His Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket for a public production.
Its rural setting (Northleach was in mind, still barely more than a large village today), score that uses actual folksongs as well as being inflected by their style and incorporates bells which intone the hymn tune ‘York’ (which found its way into the English Hymnal), and cast of countryfolk is quintessential Vaughan Williams, though rather more in his comic, rumbustious vein, as in the Five Tudor Portraits (even more so than Sir John in Love) than the more rarefied, lyrical pastoralism of the Lark Ascending or the Third or Fifth Symphonies.
Alex Carpenter conducts a resounding and jaunty account of the orchestral reduction (more or less one-to-a-part of the original, and with the inclusion of a piano). In the folksong-inspired passages (Vaughan Williams described the work as a ‘romantic ballad opera’) the ensemble also generates the warm glow of such works as the ‘Greensleeves’ Fantasia or the Variants on Dives and Lazarus, perhaps even the spirituality of the Five Mystical Songs. The chorus fill the soaring nave of Holy Trinity Church, Kensington, though some of the soloists are a little overwhelmed by it.
There is good rapport among the cast (dressed correctly for the time of the opera’s setting) in this semi-staging by Chris Cann, himself an avuncular Showman at the May fair which opens the story. The drama is largely carried by the singers’ acting without props; the fight is staged, and stocks are brought on for Hugh and Mary in Act Two. Off-stage trumpet to herald the arrival of soldiers later on adds atmosphere. Philip Clieve projects strongly and clearly in the title role, the stranger to the town who attracts Mary’s attentions away from the miserable prospect of her forthcoming marriage to the boorish butcher, John. If Victoria Mulley’s enunciation of Mary’s words is not always clear, that is only because they are somewhat obscured by her well-rounded, equally powerful voice in this wide reverberant space, and her and Clieve’s duets encompass all the passion they should.
Tony Bannister captures John’s rough-hewn character, though could be more menacing to convey with greater drama the showdown with Hugh that forms the centrepiece of the opera, before it is revealed that the latter is no spy at all, but an old friend of the Sergeant’s. Rob Sanders Hewett is a dryly stern Constable, Mary’s father, whilst by contrast Helena Culliney exhibits Aunt Jane’s deep solicitude as her chaperone. The smaller parts are all ably and distinctively performed by soloists who also fill out the choral passages, alongside the staple chorus members of townsfolk. This is an enthusiastic, charming realisation of the work.