A Village Romeo and Juliet: Review

Alexandra Coghlan gives her verdict on this year's Wexford Festival Opera

All eyes may be on 2013 and the forthcoming Britten centenary, but 2012 is also proving to be a good year for 20th-century English opera. Delius’s anniversary has seen A Village Romeo and Juliet dusted down and given a recent concert-performance by the New London Orchestra, we’ve had Peter Maxwell Davies’s classic The Lighthouse produced by English Touring Opera, Oliver Knussen’s “family operas” at the Barbican, and just this week Vaughan Williams’ operatic morality-play The Pilgrim’s Progress received its first professional staging since its premiere. At Ireland’s Wexford Festival – home to the more arcane and abstruse curios of the opera canon – a full staging of A Village Romeo and Juliet continued the trend, giving Delius’s neglected opera as fair a hearing as it seems likely to get.

Based on a short story by Swiss author Gottfried Keller (and set to a rather leaden libretto written by Delius himself), the work tells the tale of Sali and Vreli, two young lovers divided by a land-dispute between their two families. Driven out of their village by the cruelty of those around them they spend a blissful day together at a fair in a distant town, before deciding that since they cannot live together then their only remaining happiness is to die together. The opera closes as they float off down the river on a leaking boat.

With the assault of Vreli’s father, the dispute between the two farmers and the young lovers’ death, the opera has all the elements for high drama, but there’s something wilfully undramatic about Delius’s Wagner-influenced score that dulls its impact. It doesn’t help that Delius has no ear for musical dialogue. The melodies that circle above his wheat-fields and coil around his characters are beautiful, memorable, but have little organic relationship to their singers. Plot-crucial exchanges are invariably slow, and pace is a real issue in a work whose comparatively slight form must carry so much emotional weight.

The interest is all in the orchestra, and under Rory Macdonald the Wexford Festival Orchestra had much to draw the ear. Their strings in particular (benefiting from the small opera house’s excellent acoustic) have a core of strength, a connectedness, to their tone that helped guide us through Delius’s Wagnerian meanderings. Since the drama is less about action and more about a series of psychologically-driven tableaux, the orchestral interludes take on the crucial role of emotional elaboration and development. Although far too often obscured here by the scene-shifting and general activity of  Stephen Medcalf’s direction, these interludes – and especially the famous “Walk to the Paradise Garden” – were some of the finest moments of the evening, only matched by the gorgeous bustle and colour of the fair episode.

Keeping things muted in the colours of land and harvest, designer Jamie Vartan summoned a bewitching series of costumes and characters for the circus-folk. Together with the washed-out Bohemian wantons who invite Sali and Vreli to join them for a ghostly déjeuner sur l'herbe, these formed the visual set-pieces against which the delicate naturalism of the young lovers found definition.

Leading the cast, John Bellemer’s Sali was an attractive presence both vocally and dramatically. His is a technique that leaves nothing to chance, finishing and finessing each phrase with great attention. A lovely open top register brings colour to the more impassioned moments, and he balanced a convincing sense of youthful uncertainty with a mature delivery. Jessica Muirhead as Vreli was frustratingly uneven. Glorious at moments where everything came together technically, she seemed careless of phrase-ends and shorter passing notes which too often came off the breath and interrupted the flow of the music, jarring us out of the moment.

At the intriguing centre of Delius’s pastoral tragedy is the Dark Fiddler (David Stout). Whether a devil or a Puck we are never sure, but this enigmatic figure returns again and again at moments of crisis, guiding and cajoling the lovers towards their final fate. Stout’s warm baritone is a natural fit for this music, making something human out of Delius’s melodic abstractions, and adroitly sustaining the ambivalence we feel towards this sinister guardian angel.

Presented here in as competent and elegant a production as could be imagined, A Village Romeo and Juliet is a charming curiosity, earning its place among the 19th-century Italian and French repertoire that are Wexford’s bread and butter. Would I seek out this opera in future? Probably not. The work is too flawed dramatically, too uncertain of itself or its scope, but Wexford is the consummate champion of operatic underdogs, and here as ever they make a fine case.

John Bellemer and Jessica Muirhead in A Village Romeo and Juliet (photo: Clive Barda)
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The reason chicken is a popular British food? Because we started factory farming

In the 1950s, chicken was seen as an elite food and was expensive.

Chlorine-washed chickens, hormone-fed beef and pork raised on growth-promoting antibiotics. It doesn’t sound very tasty – but this is what could be lining our supermarket shelves after Brexit. Trade deals could allow an influx of meat into Britain from the US, where lower animal welfare standards mean it can be produced more cheaply. A House of Lords report this week warned this could spark a change in our farming. The high animal welfare and environmental standards we have in the UK (set by EU law) could be eroded to allow British meat to compete with cheaper imports.

Last week, Michael Gove, Defra secretary, reassured parliament he was committed to maintaining current standards after Brexit. "One thing is clear: I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country," he said. Yet some argue US-style farms have already taken over British agriculture, largely under the radar and without a national debate.

Gove was reacting to last week’s report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which revealed there are now 800 “mega-farms” in the UK, huge industrial units mimicking the feedlots of California or Texas. The biggest can house more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs or 2,000 cattle. Their emergence is part of a 26 per cent rise in intensive farming in the UK in the last six years.

This rise is mainly due to Britain’s insatiable appetite for chicken. In the 1950s, it was seen as an elite food and was expensive. Just a million were produced a year. Then, intensive farming methods were imported from the US. In 1959, the first fast-processing "poultry factory" was opened in Aldershot. By 1965, the price of poultry had fallen by nearly a third, causing demand to soar. By 1990, almost a quarter of the meat eaten in Britain was chicken or turkey. As birds can be brought to slaughter much more quickly than cows or sheep, it remained cheaper than beef or lamb.

People also began to change their meat-eating habits for health reasons. From the 1970s, government campaigns advised people to eat less fatty red meat. Chicken was seen as a leaner, healthier, alternative.

Now, it is the nation’s favourite meat. Last year, nearly a billion birds were slaughtered and another 400 million imported. Five companies – two of which are owned by multinationals - control most of the poultry production in the UK. Industrial farms are clustered in pockets of the country near their abattoirs and factories. It is causing conflict in the countryside, as local people and campaign groups say they are a blight on the landscape and complain of the smells and disturbance of lorries bringing in grain or taking birds to the abattoir.

Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy at City University believes the change to intensive farming has entrenched cheap chicken into our culture. "The more cheap meat these farms produce, the more people eat, the more cheap meat becomes part of the culture and lifestyle. We now have chicken and chips, chicken nuggets, chicken burgers. Chicken is the processed meat of choice," he says. Free range chicken accounts for 3 per cent of the market. Organic – which has the highest animal welfare standards – makes up just 1 per cent.

Yet the actual meat has changed since intensive farms arrived. Experts tested chicken from such farms in 2008 and found it had twice as much fat, a third less protein and a third more calories than in 1940. Gram for gram, it had as much fat as a Big Mac.

Chickens grown for meat are kept in computer-controlled warehouses, with up to 19 birds per square metre (roughly the same amount of space as an A4 piece of paper per bird). They are fed additive-filled, high protein food and the temperature and humidity is controlled so they gain weight. They are taken to be slaughtered when they are five to six weeks old.

Farmers and the food industry say this is the most efficient and green way to produce the meat people want. Inside sheds, the birds are protected from predators while disease and pollution can be controlled. Putting these birds out to pasture would use up more land – land which could be used for houses, parks or kept as countryside. Last June, a Defra survey counted 173 million poultry birds on the ground at that point – though as there are many "crops" of chicken many more are slaughtered in total. If we wanted to raise all those birds to organic conditions, we would take up the same amount of space as the whole of the island of Anglesey.

Animal welfare campaigners say the current "factory farming" system is cruel. Chickens want to feel the sun on their feathers, roll in dust and forage for seeds. Cramped inside a shed, they become stressed and start injuring or cannibalising one other. Food poisoning bugs such as E.coli or campylobacter, many of which are becoming resistant to antibiotics, can spread quickly through a herd. Some 63 per cent of supermarket chickens are now infected with campylobacter, the latest government testing shows, although this has decreased since last year.

The latest report, written by the House of Lords’ EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, said polls show 80 per cent or more of the UK public want animal welfare standards to be maintained or improved post-Brexit. Yet many consumers are not aware of the difference between intensive and organic farming – and may not be willing to pay a price for premium welfare products, it said.

Lang believes debate should be opened again. People need to understand where their meat comes from and whether they are comfortable with the methods used to make it. The rise in intensive farming is driven by our choices, with food companies and supermarkets acting as our brokers. “If we don’t like it, we must vote with our purses, demand retailers change their contracts and specifications in our name," he says.

‘With Brexit looming, British consumers need to be very clear: do they want animal welfare standards to rise or get swept away in pursuit of cheaper food?’

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.