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)

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism