British Music Society news
Lewis Foreman relishes Surrey Opera's world première of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's opera Thelma at the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon on 9-11 February 2012.
This year we celebrate the centenary of the death of the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and local interest in his home town of Croydon has generated a substantial announced programme of events. Indeed the others will have to be pretty good to challenge the memory of this delightful local, semi-professional, staged world première of Coleridge-Taylor's opera Thelma of 1909 which got the celebrations off to a cracking start.
Coleridge-Taylor's opera was completed just over ten years after Elgar's King Olaf, (not to mention American Carl Busch's cantata of the same name), featuring, as it does, King Olaf (albeit historically a later king). Norse legend was a favourite stratum for Victorian and Edwardian composers to mine, but it did result in some clunky plots, with now ridiculous names and rum-ti-tum versification, for twenty-first century revivals to contend with. I have been involved with some complicated and obscure musical archaeology in my time, but I must take my hat off to the heroic achievement of the amateur Surrey Opera. The manuscript survives in the British Library and has been transcribed and performing materials written by Stephen Anthony Brown, whose Herculean efforts made it all possible. He did a great job.
Coleridge-Taylor was probably his own author of the very dated libretto and it has to be said the limping versification must have been a signiﬁcant reason for the work failing to find any performance. Of course it did also have an impact on the music, and the metre and rhyming schemes tempted C-T into constant four-bar phrases especially in Act I, the major limiting feature of the work. The libretto has been edited by Christopher Cowell, but it still sounds pretty dated with some corny rhymes for as explained in the programme ‘the rhyming pattern has been faithfully observed’.
After the boldly imagined and fully scored overture (very loud in the comparatively small theatre – the orchestra tended to be too loud throughout) which bears comparison with the overture to Ethel Smyth's contemporary opera The Wreckers, the opera is in three acts, of, respectively two, three and two extended scenes. Coleridge-Taylor's music is lovely; the opera's literary and dramatic context more problematic. With intervals the evening ran for over three hours.
The simple all-purpose set, variously lit, was remarkably successful, though the Ashcroft stage is too small for the crowd scenes to be other than static. C-T gives us a triangular love-match enlivened by dastardly dealings, a trial by ordeal and recourse to a magic powder and to an Amulet. Brieﬂy it concerns Eric, a courtier (sung by Alberto Sousa) who is to marry Thelma, King Olaf's daughter (sung by Joanna Weeks). On the eve of the betrothal feast, Carl, Captain of the Mercenaries (sung by Håkan Vramsmo) that have secured King Olaf on the throne of Norway, claims her as his reward. Key to the plot is Gudrun (sung by Rhonda Browne), Thelma's companion, who is sweet on Carl. To resolve the claims of the two suitors, the King (sung by Tim Baldwin) proposes trial by ordeal – the two must sail into the Maelstrom to retrieve the lost cup of Olaf Trygvasson. Ha-ha! – Eric produces his magic reed-pipe and summons his elfin guardian, Trolla (sung by Patricia Robertson), and she gives him a magic Amulet which will protect him.
In the second act Carl meets a stranger, Djaevelen, who tells him about the Amulet. He offers to deliver the Amulet for which Carl pledges his soul. Sure enough Djaevelen drugs Eric with magic dust (they say ‘pinch of snuff’) and delivers the charm to Carl. But all has been overheard by Gudrun, who has found the magic powder, and drugging Carl retrieves the Amulet for Eric. (Still with me? – it gets worse.) Olaf and the court watch the suitors sail into the whirlpool (excellent back projection) from which only Eric returns to claim Thelma. The King agrees to the match, but Thelma insists on keeping her promise to Eric of waiting a year and a day before taking another.
In the undersea kingdom, Eric, saved by Trolla, is entertained by the Neck-King who gives him the sought-for Cup. At the wedding of Thelma and Carl, Eric suddenly arrives and demands to replace him. That kind of thing invariably causes an upset at Royal nuptials and Carl draws his sword on Eric. His blow is taken by Gudrun, who saves Eric with her own life – enter Djaevelen, Commendatore-like, to claim Eric's soul and drag him down to hell. Christian rejoicing to end.
Although there is no really knockout number like ‘Onaway Awake Beloved’ in Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, C-T's strengths in widely played light music of his time – short dance numbers, particularly Waltzes and ballad settings – are reflected in both the lyrical choral and orchestral writing. It starts strongly with Carl's aria ‘When first I saw fair Thelma's face’ (a love-motif which, leitmotif-like, recurs) though the memorable chorus which follows is redolent of a handful of G&S choruses. Eric's succeeding aria, too, could well make a concert encore. Indeed, the whole opera has a succession of delightful numbers even if there were only a couple that were truly show-stopping – a dancing chorus that starts Act 1 Scene 2, and the end of Act 2 Scenes 2 and 3 stick in the memory. Those fast dances à la Carmen (trying to be Waltzes – C-T's speciality – but never succeeding) would be even more invigorating with decent staging in a big space. It must have potential because even now various melodic motifs still stick in the mind.
In the interval I overheard several observations that C-T had no natural feeling for the theatre. While containing elements of truth, this is unfair for the pace is swiftly maintained and there are few if any longeurs. The only dramatic curiosity being the breakneck speed with which the plot is advanced in Act II by successive use of the magic powder and the theft and retrieval of the Amulet.
So, a memorable effort by Surrey Opera with some fine singing and playing. The cast of young professionals sang strongly – highlights for me were Rhonda Browne's Gudrun, Alberto Sousa's Eric, and Oliver Hunt's oily Djaevelen. Joanna Weeks' extended scena ended the second act especially memorably. Excellent too were the first desk wind players, notably the cor anglais, first flute, oboe, and horn. The conﬁdent chorus were strong and went a long way to make the piece – with good ensemble and a powerful fortissimo. Jonathan Butcher conducted with relish.
If lacking the light and shade and dramatic finesse that a professional company would have given it on a big stage, it worked remarkably well. The large orchestra placed in front of the stage (several rows of seats taken out) was very loud but the music was most enjoyable and with repetition would I suspect yield some favourite numbers. The limitations were in the literary side of the project and it is unfortunate that the name Thelma should almost be as out of fashion as Gladys and almost as ridiculous thanks to the TV series The Likely Lads. For anyone interested in the history of British music or opera in general it was unmissable. So thank you Surrey Opera, a landmark occasion which not only ﬁlled in a large blank in our knowledge but, even if no masterpiece, added a cherishable work to one's personal repertoire, hopefully to be explored again.
© Lewis Foreman, March 2012