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As Music Director Jonathan Butcher has commented, “We are explorers without sat nav, maps, or compass”. The excitement of a totally new opera is discovering the melodic paths and interpreting the composer's hints and signs.
Yet what emerges is a vivid and carefully crafted musical work, fully accessible to a modern audience. Living in the early twentieth century, it is easy to see why Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was Stanford's star pupil at the Royal College of Music. His orchestrations are stylish whilst supporting the action and singers. Jonathan Butcher also believes that Coleridge-Taylor was strongly influenced by the music of Dvorak whom he greatly admired.
When the production was first mooted, whilst the Company was on tour in Cornwall, Stephen Anthony-Brown bravely offered to undertake the transcription from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's “spidery” original hand written text – yet 600 hours later he is still enthusiastic about the work and will be appearing as the Neck King. Surrey Opera is very much in his debt.
The task facing Director Christopher Cowell was in many ways the most daunting. Whilst the music flows smoothly the libretto has needed major re-writing due to the “densely-rhymed and often obscurely-couched Edwardiana” English text. He emphasises that “the plot has been retained exactly as Coleridge-Taylor imagined, and the rhyming pattern has been faithfully observed… It is very similar to the work I do when translating operas for ENO, only this time I am translating from English into — better English.”
The opera “Thelma”, set in the 10th century, basically takes the form of a Norse saga, and it is easy to imagine the tale being recounted by a Viking warrior during the long dark winter months.
Christopher Cowell has cleverly interpreted the action in such a way that the ancient Viking gods and evil spirits co-exist with the embryonic new Christian beliefs. Indeed “Thelma” clearly contrasts the conflict between the Viking belief in physical power and the power of nature (Carl) with the softer selflessness of Christianity (Gudrun).