Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Dangerous thoughts Delius A Village Romeo and Juliet

Ronald Corp conducted Frederick Delius A Village Romeo and Juliet at the South Bank.with Christopher Maltman, Andrew Shore and others. I didn't go since I'm out five nights of seven this week. But it would have been interesting. Like most of my generation, I learned Frederick Delius A Village Romeo and Juliet from the recording with John Shirley-Quirk, Robert Tear, Benjamin Luxon, and the John Alldis Choir. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was Beecham's orchestra and they would have imbibed his approach. This recording is the classic for this reason: Beecham defined Delius as a British composer for many generations. But did Britishness strangle Delius interpretation?

Significantly, Delius did not set Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but Gottfried Keller's late nineteenth century Germanized version, Romeo und Julie auf dem Dorfe, where the poet deliberately changes the lovers' names.  Delius was well read and almost certainly knew of Keller's novel Der grüne Heinrich, and of the poet's reputation as a radical rebel. That's what drew Hugo Wolf to Keller, even earlier. So bang goes the idea that A Village Romeo and Juliet is no more than pastoral, English nostalgia.

Delius was international. For him, Bradford might have felt claustrophobic. After living among the natives in Florida, he spent his life in France. Had he not contracted VD he might have stayed among the racy, cosmopolitan set in Paris.  A Village Romeo and Juliet was written in 1901, at the height of Empire. Delius was colonized, just as the rest of the world was colonized. Delius could be appropriated as a doughty rejection of Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and them foreigners. To this day, British music circles still bear the mindset of Eric Fenby. For some, being British is more important than being artistic. So poor Fred is remodelled as British Bucolic.

In Keller's Romeo und Julie auf dem Dorfe, there are no grand Italian backdrops. Sali and Vreli are the children of peasants feuding over land that doesn't belong to them. No genial Friar Laurence. Instead the sinister Dark Fiddler, doomed by his illegitimate birth. He's a warning that lovers should not stray from the straight and narrow of orderly Swiss life. He's also a fiddler, which in German mythology equates with the Devil, our old Freund' Hein. Or is he a version of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, with violin not harp, forced to live on the margins of society because of some dark deed in his past? The photo shows Wicus Slabbert singing the part (more details here)

Opposed by their parents, Sali and Vreli need to escape. "Here we cannot stay" sings Sali, "I know another place". The bells triumph, timpani routing the dissolution. The Walk to the Paradise Gardens is usually heard on its own, out of contect. Hearing it as part of the whole opera completely changes its meaning. When a lone violin is heard apart from the tutti, do we hear it as pretty detail or as the Dark Fiddler, hovering in the background?  The Paradise Gardens is a dissolute tavern where the Fiddler and other lowlifes sing of "Freedom". Sali and Vreli are heading to Paradise, but not quite as blissfully as one might think. Shimmering strings, plateaux of pure sound. Eventually, the lovers head down a river to their deaths. Think Wagner. Is A Walk through the Paradise Gardens downstream from Siegfried's Journey down the Rhine? "The children love, their parents hate, and nobody knows the end" sings the Dark Fiddler. Sali and Vreli committ suicide by drowning in the depths.

Is this a sentimental opera? As a fantasy of happy yeomanry, maybe. But Sali and Vreli are alpine peasants, they live tough lives and don't faff about. This completely changes the tone of the opera. Can A Village Romeo and Juliet be heard as a precursor to Franz Schreker's Irrelohe? (more here).  Is Delius writing a strong-minded moral parable? Like the Dark Fiddler, Sali and Vreli must pay for the sins of those before them, but they chose to do so of their own accord. Romeo and Juliet died because their fancy plans messed up.

Delius's  A Village Romeo and Juliet isn't grand opera, quite the contrary. Although choruses predominate, the choirs represent simple peasants. Its uncompromising moral rigour simply does not suit elaborate theatres like the Royal Opera House, which is why I wasn't the least bit surprised when ROH decided against staging it. It's being done next year at Wexford, where the smaller scale will suit it better.

lots more on Delius and British music on this site

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