Thelma Reviews

Review by George Hall in The Stage

In the year marking the centenary of his death, Croydon, where Samuel Coleridge-Taylor lived for nearly the whole of his life, is commemorating him in style with a substantial festival, one of whose major events is the world premiere of his only opera.

One of Britain’s first important black composers, in his lifetime Coleridge-Taylor was a celebrity. Born in Holborn in 1875, he trained at the Royal College of Music and came to attention with the premiere of his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in 1899. With two more sections added, Hiawatha became a choral society standard for decades, and was regularly staged at the Albert Hall. His music later become unfashionable, though there is now a revival underway.

Written probably to his own libretto, Thelma was composed in 1907-09 but not performed during Coleridge-Taylor’s lifetime. To his own heavily revised libretto, Christopher Cowell’s discrete and effective production reveals its qualities, but also its faults. The second act is much too long, and the pacing as a whole awkward. But there is some very attractive music here, especially in the scene in the undersea kingdom - a genuine highlight.

Thelma is set in Norway in the 11th century, where a standard love triangle is complicated by broken promises and the possession of a magic amulet. It’s naive stuff, as is some of the score, the best of which nevertheless has an almost Dvorak-like charm.

Under Jonathan Butcher’s astute baton, the company impresses with strong voices throughout. We may not hear Thelma again for a while, but Surrey Opera has done it proud.

Review from Framescourer

In a strange climate reversal, last night Croydon saw Scandinavian snowfall outside its Ashcroft Theatre but a gulfstream of European melodic warmth on its nominally Norwegian stage. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s hitherto forgotten opera Thelma is a straightforward story of foul play between love rivals given some bizarre supernatural twists. Perhaps the most bizarre is outside the work altogether: that a young black composer who lived and worked in Victorian Croydon might choose an obscure Norse myth as an operatic subject. But then of course, Coleridge-Taylor, studying at the Royal College, had his music encouraged by Elgar and, naturally, there would be no escape from the influence of Richard Wagner. One could spend a fruitless evening trying to work out whether there’s more of the first act of Lohengrin (with knights battling over the girl), Rheingold (with the retrieval of submarine gold as the dramatic motor) or even the clumsy interpolation of Parsifal - Christianity as an extra moral thread perpetrated by the Gudrun/Kundry character.

In fact, though the thematics are familiar the music is very much its own event. Like the whirlpool that claims the love rivals in the second act the music spins on its own axis, occasionally overbalancing into the Wagnerian penumbra - the lonely cor anglais following the pitiful Gudrun around is very much that of the coastal third act of Tristan - but also kicking up eddies of Verdi with the gull-flight acciaccaturas of Simon Boccanegra, as well as the choruses of the likes of Otello, and splashing along the pastoral axis of Elgar and Dvorak. It’s music strong on melody, though not always in word-setting (the boxy text is unhelpful).

It’s also rather set-piece dependent and it was something of an achievement for director Christopher Cowell that this didn’t unduly freeze up the action. Bridget Kimak’s eliptical permanent set, a cross between a long-abandoned ship’s hull and a groyne, also gave the impression of the fateful whirlpool. A coracle provided almost the only stage furniture. I particularly liked the idea of simply inverting the small palm tree to indicate the underwater scene at the beginning of the third act. Christopher Corner’s lighting, including some appropriately fluid projections, was a good complement to this. Cowell uses all this space and its permutations to get characters moving and give the chorus options for blocking.

The chorus itself were a rather impressive ensemble. No woollen effort for this amateur group but a healthy, well-projected and remarkably clean body of sound which actually showed Coleridge-Taylor’s large set-pieces to be amongst the highlights of the opera. Neither was there any competition with the substantial orchestra that conductor Jonathan Butcher had assembled. The theatre takes the full dynamic range of the music and the voices on stage projected clearly and intact into the auditorium.

The knock-on effect of a competent chorus and orchestra is not to be taken lightly, providing structure and support for the principal roles. Joanna Weeks is a lovely fit for Thelma, her soprano of sufficient weight to carry easily across the general scale of the work, with an ease and sweetness - combined with her exemplary English text - that cuts through (more zart than blade). The final tableau of act 2 in which she reconciles herself to the scant possibility of hope for Eric’s return, accompanied by the women of the chorus, is the loveliest of the work, equivalent to the optimistic ecstasy of the equivalent point in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel and a highlight of this performance.

The leading men are split, traditionally, with the tenor as hero and baritone as cad. Alberto Sousa’s Eric and Håkan Vramsmo’s Carl also have no problem reaching out through the texture: true to their characters Vramsmo barges his way through (it occured to me that the thuggish Carl is Hunding before getting married off to Seglinde) where Sousa calls out over the top. It was good to hear Sousa in a large space having heard him last year in the much closer quarters of The Rosemary Branch’s Dinner Engagement. Rhonda Browne’s luckless Gudrun squares off the lovers singing her plangent duet with cor anglais rather beautifully.

Of course, with early medieval mythology in play there is scope for all sorts of extraordinary goings on, even by operatic standards and it’s no surprise to have not only a conch-wielding fairy godmother in the first act but also a malevolent genie pop up in the second. Patricia Robertson played the sea sprite (?) Trolla with a game commitment to the aquamarine movement - from which the credibility of the character actually gained, I might add. Causing trouble with a bag of snuff, Oliver Hunt’s Djaevelen manages an unanswered Faustian pact with the thuggish Carl. Hunt sang with great clarity and brought some charisma to what is an ill-refined Mephistophelean role in the drama - I particularly liked the Kaiser Souze-nonchalant exit after the spell in act 2. Completing the palindromic characters are King Olaf and the Neck König of Tim Baldwin and Stephen Anthony Brown respectively.

I was not convinced that Thelma has a place in the normal repertory. However, it is a coherent, musically engaging fantasy, no less preposterous than any other 19th century opera and with a concomitantly sincere score. There is certainly a case for a recording, a case well made by the company in this nicely finessed production.

A Review from Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone’s unsung hero: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor 1875 – 1912

by Sqn Ldr Winston Forde RAF Ret’d

I attended the world premier of the opera Thelma, by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, which was performed by the Surrey Opera at the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon, UK on Thursday 9th February 2012. This work was for a long time believed to be lost or destroyed; it was mis-catalogued in the British Library, and unearthed by Dr Catherine Carr in the course of research for her PhD thesis. The Mayor, Councillor Graham Bass, and Lady Mayoress together with the Festival Patron, Sir John Tomlinson CBE attended. Also present in the audience was Mrs Florence Bangalie who is Head of Chancery at the Sierra Leone High Commission, and a few other Sierra Leoneans taking part in a year-long festival during this Centenary year of Celebration of the composer’s life, and work. HE Mr Edward M Turay was appointed a Vice President of the Festival. (Photo: Sir Samuel Coleridge-Taylor)

The story of Thelma is presented as a Norse myth; good triumphs over evil and true love reigns (in the Romantic tradition).

Synopsis

Thelma is the daughter of King Olaf; she is in love with Earl Eric and he is in love with her. A bad man, Carl, also wants to marry Thelma. King Olaf wants her to marry Carl. Another lady, Gudrun, is in love with Carl.

King Olaf sets a challenge for Thelma’s two suitors: she will marry the man who recovers a golden goblet that he lost to the sea where it is held in a kingdom of fearsome but good-natured sea necks. But it is necessary to pass through a dangerous maelstrom to reach that kingdom.

Eric’s fairy godmother gives him an amulet to protect him on his journey. Carl steals it from him but Gudrun, knowing its story, returns it to Eric. Carl, assuming that Eric will be killed without the amulet’s protection, tells the King that Eric is dead and Carl’s wedding to Thelma is arranged.

Meanwhile, Eric gets the golden goblet and returns it to the King just in time before the marriage takes place. King Olaf arranges for Eric and Thelma to wed instead. Carl tries to kill Eric but Gudrun interposes herself and she is killed instead. Carl is carried off. Eric marries Thelma and everybody is happy!

About Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Black man, was one of the foremost English composers of his generation.

His father was Dr Daniel Peter Hughes from Sierra Leone. He trained in England as a doctor and worked as a GP with a senior partner; when the senior partner died, he inevitably lost most of his patients and returned to Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, 18 year old Alice Martin gave birth to his son in August 1875, and with her father’s support raised S C-T including his training at the Royal College of Music in London.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a founding organiser of the Pan African Congress in London in 1900. In Washington DC, the “Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society” was formed by around 200 Black singers to perform his work. They sponsored his first trip to the USA.

As well as being a prolific composer, he was for periods of his life the “chief conductor” of the Croydon Symphony Orchestra and the Rochester Choral Society and he lectured at Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music.

He died of pneumonia at the age of 37.

His work was incredibly popular in the UK before the Second World War: the Royal Albert Hall held an annual costumed production of his Song of Hiawatha choral trilogy conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. His work went out of fashion after 1945.

Educated in composition at the Royal College of Music under C. V. Stanford in the same year as Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, his music is very much English music of that period. The Music scholar can hear, in Thelma, influences of Dvorak, Mahler, Wagner and Delius professionally delivered by the lead Lady Joanna Weeks and a stalwart cast of excellent voices. As an untrained thespian, and a pioneer of operatic performances of the Freetown Choral Society of yore, I enjoyed the production immensely and found that S C-T had his own distinctive style of composition; the choreography was impeccable, but I missed leaving with a memorable tune or song. The high standard of the production was due in no small measure to the Artist Director, Christopher Cowell, and the Conductor, Jonathan Butcher GRSM ARSM LRAM. How I yearned that we could boast such an orchestra in Sierra Leone, or even a much smaller group! I anticipate that the Ballanta Academy will recognise this great son of our land, and also celebrate his Centenary year in an appropriate manner. There is no doubt that we should all be especially proud of this famous countryman with family connections such as our most renowned ex-Mayor of Freetown 1948-54, Alderman Eustace Henry Taylor Cummings CBE, and I strongly believe that any posthumous National Honour would seem an obvious reward for his timely achievements setting Sierra Leone so firmly on the World stage those many decades ago.

Review by Andrew Clements in The Guardian

Even in the world of opera, fairytales don’t always come true. The first performance of a composer’s long-lost opera in his home town, 100 years after his death, deserves to be a revelation, particularly when that composer is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose music is now almost totally overlooked. Alas, Surrey Opera’s production reveals that Thelma, rediscovered by chance in the British Library in 2003, doesn’t even come into the fascinating-but-flawed category. The instincts of the Edwardian opera companies that rejected the score in 1909 were right; whatever the strengths of some of the music, the work is shackled by the clunking rhymes and fustian archaisms of its libretto (almost certainly Coleridge-Taylor’s own work).

The plot, in which Christian redemption finally overcomes Dark Ages paganism, involves a love triangle, a magic amulet, water nymphs and a character called the King of the Necks. Wagner’s Ring hovers in the background, and Wagner is also part of its musical makeup, though a less important part than Dvořák, Brahms, Sullivan and even Rimsky-Korsakov. Coleridge-Taylor is at his best in the colourful orchestral writing. By contrast, the vocal lines often seem forced, shackled by the leaden text; and the dramatic shape wavers. It’s a work that would benefit enormously from some tactful cuts, especially in the central act.

It is understandable that Surrey Opera should have wanted to present Thelma complete. Director Christopher Cowell has done what he can to improve the text, and his economically naturalistic production keeps the action moving and the chorus well-marshalled. With Jonathan Butcher conducting, all the singers work hard: Joanna Weeks is Thelma and Alberto Sousa her lover Eric, with Håkan Vramsmo as the baddie, Carl, and Rhonda Browne as the faithful Gudrun. It remains a curio, though, not a reclaimed masterpiece.

Peter Grahame Woolf in Musical Pointers

Famous in his time, the Afro-English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) lived and worked in Croydon for his entire life. His Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast had collosal sales and regular spectacular performances under Sargent; he’d sold it outright for 15 guineas and died at 37 in poverty. That led to the creation of the Performing Rights Society. I was introduced to his Petit Suite de Concert by my mother, and enjoyed playing it for many of my younger years…

Coleridge-Taylor’s home town is doing the centenary of his early death proud, inaugurating a wide-ranging revival festival of his music, an historic event in Croydon and, of course, particularly for SC-T himself at large. His opera, rejected in 1909 and long thought lost, had been rediscovered in the British Library in immaculate full orchestral score, prepared by the composer for the Carl Rosa Opera Company, which turned it down, probably because of the libretto which seems to have been C-T’s own, since when it languished unheard…

It has been readied for performance by Stephen Anthony Brown, who made necessary alterations to the libretto for this production, and decided that it was important to present Thelma complete with all the music (which may for the future need a little pruning of the lengthy middle Act).

Surrey Opera’s Thelma, “a saga of deceit, magic, retribution and the triumph of love over wickedness”, made for an interesting long evening with many incidental pleasures along the way.

Not a lost masterpiece, but with music well worth hearing, especially for the orchestra. It gave unalloyed pleasure to a capacity Croydon audience at the attractive Ashcroft Theatre (which shares foyer and restaurant with the adjacent Fairfield Hall).

There is no orchestra pit, and the orchestration is fulsome, but the acoustics are good and the singers had no problems making themselves heard.

Preparation was first class with generally excellent diction; indeed, by a paradoxical reversal of the usual, from a middle stalls seat I only managed to decipher some of the sur-titled text on the small, high-up box as I heard the words being sung!

The singers were all adequate, and I enjoyed best the clear, bright but unforced tenor of Alberto Sousa, ex-GSMD.

Jonathan Butcher made the most of the excellent orchestra’s opportunities. The staging and design were imaginative given the limitations and I was glad to note that the performance we attended was being videoed.

from My Restricted View

A Croydon premiere

It’s not often there’s an opera premiere in Croydon, particularly not of a lost romantic score by a composer considered to be ‘local’. On Thursday, Surrey Opera unearthed, dusted down, slightly re-worded and presented Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Thelma in the Ashcroft Theatre at the Fairfield Halls. I caught the second of three performances, and found it a bold performance of a musically interesting piece, based around a slightly bonkers plot and saddled with the worst libretto I can recall.

Coleridge-Taylor is, of course, most known for cantatas based around the Hiawatha story. I can recall a school trip to the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, to see the work performed and, given my appalling memory, it must have made some impression if I can recall it now. Anyhow, back in Croydon, there was a bit of buzz about the mounting of the once-thought-lost Thelma. Surrey Opera are certainly to be commended for the efforts involved in this task, particularly given that there were only three performances as a result of (what must have been) considerable work to understand and assimilate an unfamiliar piece. I can only imagine the superhuman efforts involved, above and beyond the work put into a familiar piece like a Rigoletto or Figaro, to prepare everyone for a world premiere such as this. Bravo! one and all.

The cantata composer is in evidence, with the piece being at its most successful in the choral numbers, which rise to assertive climaxes with rhythmic force. Passages of recitative are less distinctive, and solo numbers are variable. Act 1 had a notable aria for Gudrun, the wronged but noble mezzo. All in all, Thelma provides relatively little by way of distinctive characterisation, with some ‘stock’ characterisation. The story is impressive for managing to pull in bits of Zauberflöte (flute; trial), Faust (pact with the devil), Der Ring (Nordic mythological setting), and a supernatural helpmeet that, in its presentation, brought to mind the Fairy Queen from Iolanthe. Otherwise, it is rather daft. The libretto is in rather overblown rhymes which become very wearing very quickly, and Act 2 in particular would have benefited from some tightening: its pacing towards the close of the act kept building to choral climaxes that felt like the end, but which weren’t…

Joanna Weeks’ Thelma grew in vocal strength and distinction as the evening progressed, and she was very effective in her closing aria. As her hero, Eric, Alberto Sousa had a sweet tenor that seemed a bit pushed at points. Håkan Vramsmo projected Carl’s evil in a strong, occasionally thrilling Nordic baritone. His presentation of Carl was certainly virile alongside the slightly stiff Eric. Rhonda Browne’s Gudrun came across well, alternately eavesdropping from behind furniture or ‘being anguished’. King Olaf (Tim Baldwin) delivered well, but wasn’t given much opportunity to deepen the character. As the supernaturals, Oliver Hunt went for a camp Djævelen, Patricia Robertson was the Fairy Queen-ish Trolla with contralto tones, and Stephen Anthony Brown had to try and make something of the Neck-Kœnig (I know, don’t ask, I’ve no idea either…)

The orchestra produced a vivid sound, though occasionally overpowering voices in the relatively small Ashcroft space. One reviewer suggested it had “an almost Dvorak-like charm” in parts; in the intermezzi, I thought I detected a sound-world of Saint-Saens. As a result of the orchestral contribution, I have been tempted to seek out some of Coleridge-Taylor’s instrumental works, even though (like the libretto), it lacks some much-needed musical variety overall and is relatively simplistic when compared to the contemporary works of, for example, Strauss (Elektra (1909), Rosenkavalier (1911)), Puccini (whose La Fanciulla del West premiered in 1910, the year of Thelma’s completion), or the slightly earlier Debussy. As a first opera though, and considering his early death, I suppose we should box it up with Strauss’s Guntram or Feuersnot, or Wagner’s Die Feen: perhaps problematic in themselves, but glimpses of potential future success, sadly not to be realised in Coleridge-Taylor’s case.

Jonathan Butcher conducted, and kept things moving at a pace. Christopher Cowell (Director), Bridget Kimak (Designer) and Christopher Corner (Lighting) pulled together a stylish single set of neutrals and an aquamarine-lit backdrop, occasionally adding the swirling maelstrom in projection.

I overheard neighbours talking about it being their first opera (it was the sort of evening where you feel like you’re in a minority for not being related to someone in the performance). I did feel an urge to intervene to assure them that opera wasn’t always like this: it is some long way from the dramatic sophistications of Traviata or even Rigoletto and rather reinforces any prejudices that may be out there about the artform. Nonetheless, that is not to detract from what was an important endeavour to bring this piece to the stage, with much to celebrate even if it will not be seen again regularly. And it was very pleasing indeed that this work was accomplished in Croydon by a locally-based group such as Surrey Opera. Bravo for civic musical pride…

Review by Bella Bartock in Inside Croydon

Not much thyme to Coleridge-Taylor’s lost opera

BELLA BARTOCK has returned to Inside Croydon Towers, tiara slightly askew, a couple of pages of tightly-typed copy in her be-gloved hand, after the latest high-brow premiere to be staged at the Fairfield Halls

Over the years, I have always found it difficult to untangle criticism of the artistic merit of premiere pieces from the performance of the artists.

Here, at the Fairfield Halls’ first performances of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s long-lost Thelma, it was the singers who come out on top with a very awkward piece.

To have your main operatic protagonists named “Thelma” and “Eric” gives a clue that Coleridge-Taylor was going to struggle with the libretto in this unintended Edwardian pastiche of Wagnerian Aryan motifs and Gounod’s Faustian hellish ending.

The music itself improves in the second and thirds acts and does give hints of late Romantic threads from Mahler, Dvorak and Brahms.

But, oh dear, it might have been better if we had been spared the surtitles of the clunking verse. They only reminded us of the forced nature of the rhyming.

It was the libretto that led the Carl Rosa Opera Company to bin the work, and clearly Coleridge-Taylor’s skills lay elsewhere, as seen in better known pieces like his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding-feast.

Perhaps the Thelma music was reminiscent, too, of Sullivan and the work might well have benefited from a Gilbert’s input on the libretto, even though this version had benefited from tweaking by the director.

In fact, a bit of Gilbertian nonsense would probably be the best way to make this opera work if it were to be re-performed.

Oliver Hunt’s knowingly arch style of hamming up the role of Djaevelen, “an evil being”, in fact the devil, drew vaudeville style boos at the curtain call, but this just underlined how much he had engaged with the audience.

Perhaps if the opera were played somewhat less seriously it would work better, because there is no way that this is Wagner, even if there are Norwegian water sprites and a Parsifalian holy grail of a lost golden cup to be retrieved.

This is not to decry the performers and Surrey Opera, who brought this only opera of Croydon’s favourite son to delightful life.

A large chorus was haunting in its off-stage singing and attractive in its densely packed tableaux.

Håkan Vramsmo was convincing in his Nordic anti-hero role as Carl and Alberto Sousa as Eric was robust in his singing if somewhat peculiar in his non-Nordic Ahmadiyyan style hat.

There was a beautiful duet with Joanna Weeks as Thelma. This was only topped by a quintet of the five voices of the leading characters.

Tim Baldwin, who only came to opera at the age of 35, was a characterful King Olaf.

Patricia Robertson sang and glided across the stage convincingly as elfin Trolla while only being occasionally drowned out by a large orchestra themselves occasionally engulfed in dry ice affects.

The singers did well to tackle the other dryness in evidence, the parched acoustics of the Ashcroft, that are not best suited to opera.

What was encouraging was to see the Ashcroft full. There is a demand for opera in Croydon and Surrey and perhaps the councillors with a reputation for paltry arts should take some delight in this success by promoting more.

The interest in the performance suggests that the year’s festival of Coleridge -Taylor music in Croydon, with more than 20 events to come will be a success.

Katy S Austin in Bachtrack

Thelma makes her Debut with Surrey Opera

It had lain in the archives of the British Library since around 1986. Now, rediscovered by a PhD student and transcribed by Stephen Anthony-Brown, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s opera Thelma has at last received its world première in the capable hands of Surrey Opera.

It’s a small miracle that Thelma, written between 1907 and 1909, came to be performed at all. 2012 marks the centenary of the composer’s death, a century that had forgotten the Croydon composer’s three-act, three-hour opera. Some mystery surrounds its disappearance, although rejection from the Carl Rosa Opera Company was probably a factor.

Unfortunately, the miracles end with its retrieval. The major drawbacks are a saccharine Edwardian libretto and an overly complex, clumsy narrative. *Thelma*’s redeeming features include Wagnerian motifs and orchestral interludes, which are melody-rich and memorable. The score also includes an effective quartet between the four leads in its latter stages and maintains an engaging musical thread throughout, showing an array of compositional influences.

Coleridge’s opera is set in eleventh-century Norway, Nordic mythology having been in vogue at the time of composition. To cut a long story short, Eric and Carl both seek the hand of King Olaf’s daughter Thelma in marriage, but must retrieve the cup of Olaf to win it. A protective amulet helps them, whilst a malicious spirit, Djaevelen, bargains souls in return for his meddling aide. Meanwhile, Gudrun acts as the tragic but devoted aide to both, saving them from danger and ultimately sacrificing her own life.

The score demands a full symphony orchestra, resulting in Fairfield Hall’s Ashcroft Theatre adding (I am informed) half again to the number of orchestral players normally in the pit. For the most part, the orchestra acquitted themselves well, filling the hall and making up for the lack of excitement in the libretto. The chorus, which featured prominently, enjoyed some lovely tunes and were well choreographed.

The performance by *Thelma*’s lead roles was spirited but often hammy – again, largely due to the libretto. Portugese Tenor Alberto Sousa’s singing was tidy and direct, although the role of Eric sounded too high for comfort in his voice. Thelma herself is not really fleshed out as a character in the libretto, but Joanna Weeks brought a sweet, sound voice to the role.

Characters’ tendency to suddenly fall to the ground, intoxicated by poisoned snuff, was just one element that came dangerously close to pantomime. Oliver Hunt’s evil Djaevelen was another, rising menacingly up from behind scenery at moments of danger, plotting or romance. Fortunately, Hunt’s tall figure was suitably foreboding and his singing excellent (even if one could be forgiven for wanting to shout ‘he’s behind you’).

The costumes for this production harked back to the spirit of indulgent Wagnerism, and stormy weather projections added a little dynamism, to a colourful, if cluttered, stage.

Thelma is likeable enough, as a score that sweeps the audience along. But it won’t supersede Coleridge’s Songs of Hiawatha in popularity, nor will it lend much to the notion of Coleridge as a ‘Black Mahler’. The libretto desperately needs further adaptation, and its staging needs an update, before it can enter any company’s standard repertoire.

Those interested in finding out more about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor can do so at various Croydon musical events throughout 2012, or see a portrait of the composer (aged 6) at the National Portrait Gallery.

from George’s Musings

Thelma – A brave proposition from Surrey Opera

I heard about the world premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s opera on Twitter and it seemed like a good idea to support the effort of a local opera group. The saga of the opera in the last 100 years is possibly more intricate than the nordic mythology in the heart of the plot. Tom Service wrote an article on it, so I won’t bore you on it here, check out the link at the bottom for his article. Also the plot can be found on Surrey Opera’s website, by clicking on the link provided below.

Now how was Thelma? The stand out feature of the first few minutes was all the Nordic sounding brass dominating the soundscape but the characteristic that becomes all too apparent is the drab libretto with truly leaden prose, stuck in a world of forced rhyming. (Have a look below for some selected clangers.) It makes the first act a bit too reminiscent of a farce or at worst a panto. My heart went out particularly to Rhonda Browne (Gudrun) who had some of the worst lines imaginable while lamenting the lost love of Eric.

It is very difficult to take seriously some of the awful text and it did take a whole act for me to circumnavigate the iceberg in the room. The musical idiom is late Romantic, mellifluous, gliding strings punctuated with harp, percussion and omni-present brass. The orchestration throughout was fluid with enough variation to hold interest but unfortunately the first act was not inventive enough and the action did not quite get things moving swiftly. The standout highlight was the aria for Trolla, which was sang with great conviction and style by Patricia Robertson. Despite that, there were a lot of stiff smiles at first interval…with oh Thelma written on people’s faces.

The second act which was taking place at the seashore before the sea trial for the two men was much more interesting, helped by much faster recitativi. The chorale in the end of act 2 about belief was the highlight alongside Thelma’s own aria. They showed a much more mature musical world and in a more dramatic idiom. The token evil spirit of the story Djaevelen, portrayed charmingly by Oliver Hunt (a member of the excellent Stile Antico) was a fun addition and with his appearance under a red spotlight gave almost a visual reference to a warming catering hotplate. His singing was bright and surely had fun with his entries and exits, sometimes climbing the set or others on all fours going under it! Maybe that was something that Coleridge-Taylor did not foresee, an element of humour to lift the story. The libretto and the music are both too self-consciously serious to allow for much lightness to creep.

The third act was much more dynamic as the first scene was taking place in the undersea kingdom, while the second one was the wedding of Thelma and Carl. The undersea world was evoked by suspending what seemed like a tree prop in the first two acts into an upside down position making feel like the roots of a plant growing in water. The back projected screen with images of flowing water and remaining a bright azure was a good negotiation of the difficulty of staging this scene. The music as well took a more crystalline clarity which aided the atmosphere and once more Trolla’s and the choir’s singing kept momentum going. Unfortunately Alberto Sousa’s portrayal of Eric was for me the low point of the evening, delivering any high-lying parts of his role with bulging eyes, showed a level of strain one would not expect. That sheer pushed nature of his delivery made most of his acting out of sorts with the rest of the cast. The scene depicting Thelma’s marriage was beautifully done and with some very thoughtful directorial touches. As the scene progresses from happiness for the smooth outcome of love, to a tragedy after the accidental stabbing of Gudrun. The nuptial bouquets held by the chorus ended up becoming the adornments for her dead body. This last scene brought together the final act and almost made us forget some of the longueurs of the piece as a whole. And judging from the enthusiastic applause and the panto boos for Djaevelen the audience had a good time overall.

Surrey Opera did a great job at bringing to the stage the work in its most complete form. But can’t imagine it will have a reason to become a repertoire work without any major reworking. Coleridge-Taylor’s capability to write memorable melodies and a huge capacity to mass voices for dramatic effect is undeniable. But the sheer length of Thelma and owing to the thin ,edging on infuriating, libretto make it an unsatisfying overall night at the theatre. It is an interesting historical curio from the career of a wonderful young composer whose life was cut too short. I am glad to have seen it and hope to encounter again some of the choral parts of it and a couple of the arias in the future.

The greatest advice to come out of this staging would be ‘kids do not put your priceless amulet around your sword

Richard Eichert from the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation on Africlassical

Over four hundred people, including the mayor, local MP and descendants of the composer, braved the freezing weather to attend Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre on the 9th of February for Surrey Opera’s eagerly anticipated world première of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s opera, Thelma.

Catherine Carr’s pre-performance talk covered her rediscovery of the Thelma manuscript at the British Library and furnished useful additional background. During the question and answer session it emerged that an audience member had been present at one of the staged productions of Hiawatha in the 1930’s.

Following Catherine’s discovery, work still had to be done by the talented team at Surrey Opera to prepare Thelma for performance, notably the transcription of the original manuscripts and the adaptation of the libretto. The plot of Thelma was relatively uncomplicated to follow with the ample programme notes and surtitles to assist.

The excellent orchestra was conducted with flair by Jonathan Butcher. The minimalist set and lighting was highly effective and enhanced the mood. Indeed, the mist from the soldiers’ encampment in the first act wafted through the orchestra and reached some of the audience. The costumes looked the part, especially those of the undersea dwellers, the Necks, with their shell hats and seaweed robes that looked as if they had been shredded in the dreaded Maelstrom.

In keeping with Coleridge-Taylor’s other works, the music was rich in melody. There were several good solos and duets and one moving piece sung by the four lead characters. The choir and principals performed well. The audience gave more applause at the end for their favourite characters. But the music was the real winner.

All in all, Thelma was a splendid collaborative effort. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s home town did him proud.

Fiona Maddocks in The Observer

The only place to go last week was Croydon. Surrey Opera mounted the world-premiere staging of Thelma, a rediscovered opera by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). I do not trust myself to give a precis of the plot. Here are some key elements: Vikings, pagans, Christians, an elfin guardian, an amulet, a whirlpool’s vortex, a pinch of snuff, sea sprites, an underwater kingdom, a fatal thrust. It seems, unaccountably, Coleridge-Taylor was coy about having written the libretto himself.

Naturally there is a love triangle, and were it all sung in Norse or Bulgarian rather than English we might mind rather less that the text is somewhat crackpot and mildly turgid, despite the rigorous editorial efforts of Stephen Anthony Brown and director Christopher Cowell. Bursting with ear-catching melody and ripe orchestral colour, the score was well worth hearing, with fine contributions from the talented cast who gave their all, as did conductor Jonathan Butcher. The simple helmets-and-tabards production, too, had a touching authenticity.

Coleridge-Taylor, the “Black Mahler”, as Charles Elford’s new biography terms him, is being celebrated this centenary year. Check him out. Born to an English mother and African father, he grew up streets away from the Salvation Army’s Croydon Citadel, whose band (still active) was formed in 1883 and whose bandmaster was arrested in the early days for disturbing the peace. That rousing brass-band verve informs the opera’s score. Thelma is not a masterpiece but it offers a snapshot of a strand of British musical history steeped not only in Wagner or Elgar but in black American music and Croydon street life too. Ideas repeat rather than develop, but there is no shortage of action, especially in the dramatic final act. All praise to Surrey Opera.

Anna Picard in The Independent on Sunday

Composed in 1909, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Thelma received its belated world premiere last week, 100 years after the composer’s death at the age of 37. Stephen Anthony Brown’s meticulous performing edition includes the sensitive orchestration of a movement found only in the piano score. Director Christopher Cowell has tweaked a libretto thought to be Taylor’s own, but more drastic intervention is needed. A torrid mix of Nordic folklore and Christian moralising, in which the hero must swim to the bottom of the sea to win his bride, Thelma has music of great suavity, with shades of Dvořák’s The Spectre’s Bride.

In fake fur and car blankets, Surrey Opera’s chorus sang lustily, dutifully waving their arms in the underwater scene. Joanna Weeks (Thelma), Hakan Vramsmo (Carl) and Alberto Sousa (Eric) gave polished performances. Rhonda Browne’s Gudrun had pathos, while Oliver Hunt’s leering snuff-pusher Djaevelen brought a hint of panto to the denouement. Under Jonathan Butcher, the orchestra achieved a robust glow. Considering 1909 was the year that Strauss’s Elektra and Schoenberg’s Erwartung were created, Taylor was already outdated. Croydon’s most famous musical son is in the spotlight this year. But as to magic Nordic snuff, just say no.

Robert Thickness in Opera Now

I don’t know if this world première, as with so many, will also be the world dernière, but Thelma comes close to being treasurably bad, and perhaps should be wheeled out every so often for that reason alone.

This is not a whimsical comedy set among retired folk in the Yorkshire Dales, as you might be misled into thinking by its title. Actually, Thelma is chock-a-block with the most promising elements: it’s got a Viking hero called Eric, a much-stolen amulet and an elfin guardian. It’s got a battle in the Maelstrom. There’s a guy selling his soul to the devil, and a chorus of sea-sprites, the legendary cup of Olaf Trygvasson, a princess promised to a man she loathes, and a woman who Dies For Love. It’s even got a Neck-King. What could possibly go wrong?

The regrettable answer is that it could fall into the hands of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Croydon’s most famous son. This moderately gifted composer wrote the Song of Hiawatha, which was an inexplicably enormous hit with the Edwardians. He died young in 1912. Thelma, finished in 1909, never reached the stage in his lifetime. It was turned down by the Carl Rosa Opera Company and was subsequently lost, until its chance rediscovery in the British Library in 2003.

This sort of stuff requires nerves of steel, and Surrey Opera took it on manfully. The handwritten score was deciphered by Stephen Anthony Brown, who produced the performing edition; director Christopher Cowell rewrote the dreadful libretto, probably made by the composer himself; Jonathan Butcher, SO’s enthusiastic artistic director for 36 years, conducted a brass-heavy orchestra with considerable conviction. Soloists Joanna Weeks, Rhonda Browne, Håkan Vramsmo and Alberto Sousa committed themselves wholeheartedly.

Frankly, it’s a lot of effort for a piece that displays a cavalier scorn for the dramatic opportunities its scenario begs for. The soul-selling bit, for example, passes without your noticing it. The amulet changes hands in ways too dull to recount. On the plus side, the baddie winds up being chucked into the cauldron which has been rather gratuitously prominent on stage until that point.

Sadly, the composer’s cloth-ear for words and drama seems rather to have extended to his music. There are certainly things that appeal: little curly ‘exotic’ tunes, reminiscent of Peer Gynt and the occasional pingy spot of orchestration with shimmery strings, a wormy cello accompaniment and sinuous oboe lines. The writing for voice involves mildly engaging ballads and choruses in three-time, pitched somewhere between Victorian hymns and Arthur Sullivan. There are a few cute minutes at the end of Act II, where soprano and chorus reach a level of musical delight with some uplifting modulations. But there’s also far too much heavy-footed chordal plod and uninspired sequences, and too little vocal charm.

John Allison in Opera magazine

Surrey Opera at the Ashcroft Theatre. Croydon, February 11

The years 1907-9 were good ones for opera, with works composed during this time including – just to take pieces by six very different composers – The Legend of the City of Kitezh, A Village Romeo and Juliet, Fortunio, Elektra, Erwartung and Il segreto di Susanna. And then there was Thelma: where to place the only opera of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, left unperformed at the time of his premature death in l9l2 and now premièred finally as part of Croydon’s year-long festival commemorating the centenary of its once famous musical son?

Thelma Scene
  • The première of Coleridge-Taylor ‘Thelma’ in Croydon, with (l. to r.) Rhonda Browne (Gudrun), Alberto Sousa (Eric), Joanna Weeks (Thelma) and Håkan Vramsmo (Carl)
Dubbed the ‘African Mahler’ in his day (by players of the New York Philharmonic, who must have known what they were talking about) and celebrated above all for Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, Coleridge-Taylor was a highly-regarded composer, but most of his work has now passed into oblivion. Placing him today is tricky, since his attractive music has not always dated well, yet it holds a respectable enough place next to much else written in England during this period. If Thelma sounds tame in comparison with Elgar’s masterpieces of the time or with what Holst was soon to compose. it was still worth the huge undertaking of Surrey Opera’s landmark production.

As Surrey Opera’s music director Jonathan Butcher suggested in these pages (February, pp. 142-6), Thelma was crippled chiefly by the Edwardian doggerel of its libretto, thought to he the work of Coleridge-Taylor himself, though tinkering by the score’s editor, Stephen Anthony Brown, and the production’s director, Christopher Cowell, helped to disguise that, It may also have been bad timing on Coleridge-Taylor’s part to write Thelma just as Nordic subjects were going out of fashion (the torrid plot, in which Christian redemption triumphs over Viking paganism. invokes such elements as an undersea kingdom, a magic amulet, a whirlpool’s vortex and a pinch of snuff, and involves sea sprites, an elfin guardian and a character called King of the Necks); had the half-Sierra Leonean composer instead explored the sort of African themes on which he was touching elsewhere in his music, the resulting opera might have faced obstacles a century ago but might also have been rescued sooner.

In light of Elgar’s encouragement of Coleridge-Taylor, it is perhaps surprising not to hear any Elgarian influences in the work, though maybe the subject matter itself reflects Elgar’s early cantata, King Olaf. But Dvořák (in Spectre’s Bride mode) and even Rimsky-Korsakov (especially in the undersea scene, suggestive of Sadko) left their mark on the score, which received a robust performance in Croydon under Butcher’s baton.

Cowell’s production was sensibly straightforward and kept the action (even the amateur chorus) moving in Bridget Kimak’s naturalistic designs, and her stage – dominated by a wintry, bent-back tree like something out of a Segantini painting, and a giant, upturned helmet – suggested a rocky shore. Joanna Weeks gave a committed account of the title role; the rivals for Thelma’s hand were sung by Alberto Sousa as Eric (whose clear, clean tenor was the best voice of the evening) and Håkan Vramsmo as Carl, and there was solid support from Rhonda Browne (Gudrun. Thelma’s companion), Oliver Hunt (the evil, snuff-pushing Djaevelen) and Tim Baldwin (King Olaf). A good standard has been set for further productions, with the Pegasus Opera Company due to follow in the autumn.

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

Thelma at Croydon

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