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.

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Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war