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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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