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.