Summary for the Busy Executive: A "new" Sir John.
A member of the Darwin and Wedgewood families, Vaughan Williams had independent means, which meant he could afford to follow his artistic interests. He loved opera and theater and composed far more incidental music and ballets than people usually give him credit for. He wrote five operas: Hugh the Drover, The Poisoned Kiss, Sir John in Love, Riders to the Sea, and The Pilgrim's Progress. None of them have held the stage. Until the advent of Britten's Peter Grimes, no British opera did, and the native tradition was distinctly spotty. Vaughan Williams's most distinguished predecessors were Sullivan (the operettas) and Holst (Savitri).
All of VW's operas have some sort of problem. Hugh the Drover suffers from a horrible libretto (by a writer for the Times) which, despite the composer's attempts to improve, remains horrible. The same can be said of The Poisoned Kiss, although as comic operetta, it's less of a problem. That libretto came from a VW niece. Riders to the Sea – probably the best text he ever worked with – sets the Synge play word for word but is way too brief to fill an evening. Indeed, it would have to appear on some sort of triple bill. The Pilgrim's Progress probably doesn't appeal to the usual opera-goer, since it deals with neither murder nor sex. Sir John in Love competes with Verdi's masterpiece and hit Falstaff, which, incidentally, has also crowded out the once-popular Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor. All of VW's operas, however, contain great tunes and great music. Indeed, I prefer VW's Falstaff to Verdi's, but try competing with a brand name.
VW began working on Poisoned Kiss, Sir John, and Riders at roughly the same time, but the three works couldn't differ more. Poisoned Kiss, a comic operetta on the same idea as Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter," I think of as VW's take on G & S. Riders is a chamber opera, grim and almost single-mindedly concentrated on the dramatic action. Sir John is the most conventional of VW's operas. The composer himself capably adapted Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor and added Elizabethan lyrics (and a French folk song) for arias from Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Campion, and others. He also sprinkled in some English folk tunes (which occupy a grand total of 15 minutes of the score), some for dramatic point (like "John, come kiss me now" and "Greensleeves"), some just because that's what he wanted at that moment. He wrote the opera with the knowledge that it would probably sink without a trace, but the tunes were just too good to lose. He recycled some of the numbers as the cantata In Windsor Forest and allowed an arrangement for strings, flute, and harp by R. Greaves, the Fantasia on "Greensleeves", which became a VW hit.
Verdi, of course, has made reciting the plot superfluous. Sir John shows a canny theatrical sensibility at work, almost the equal of Verdi's or Puccini's. VW's particularly impressive in the way he can musically separate complex strands of action, as in the opening quarrel scene, the basket scene, or the "Herne the Hunter" episode. He seems to pluck one incredibly beautiful tune after another out of his pocket. In the Windsor Forest episode especially, he seems to play a game of topping himself, arriving at one melodic peak, only to move on to a higher one. The final number, "Whether men do laugh or weep," is simply one of the finest tunes I know.
Vaughan Williams has been faulted for his inability to delineate character. I think the charge stems from the quality of the Hugh the Drover and Poisoned Kiss libretti. Here, the characters are not only sharp, due to Shakespeare, but rounded by the music, which deepens the drama. For example, Anne Page's foolish suitors are not merely fools. Dr. Caius, for example, becomes more than a quarrelsome comic Frenchman when he breaks into song out of love for Anne. Anne becomes the great humanizing influence among all the characters, and it's VW's music that brings this off. Falstaff is not merely a vain, devious lecher and sponge, but something very close to a great acceptor of human beings as he finds them. Like Anne, he blows the breath of life on one and all, and he's not mean. In the opening scene, for example, he answers Shallow's charges against him truthfully. He has done all the things Shallow accuses him of. This is opposed to his followers Nym and Pistol, who get Slender drunk, rob him, and then lie about it. Ford's jealousy scene is absolutely masterful as he goes from disbelief and confusion to rage.
Like the play, the opera proceeds on two lines: Falstaff's wooing of Mistresses Page and Ford and Fenton's wooing of Anne, both strands brought together in Windsor Forest. It's neatly worked in both play and opera. In short, this is a great opera on a fine play – one of the few Shakespearean operas full of real Shakespeare.
As was his habit, Hickox went back to previous versions of the score and found three substantial sections normally left out, which VW had written for a (rare) subsequent production: a Prologue, an Episode, and an Intermezzo. He includes the latter two in this recording because he thinks, rightly, that they add to the drama. I wish he had included the Prologue as well, just so I could hear it. I can't imagine it's awful.
The overall performance is loving and even gemütlich. Matthew Best as Ford and Roderick Williams as Page stand out among a very good cast. Most of the voices are smallish ones, however, although they do sing very well and even, here and there, break out into decent acting. Hickox's orchestra is quite fine, and the conductor himself seems an excellent opera conductor, with a suave and lively line. I wonder how he did on the standards. The sound is Chandos's usual superb.
The main problem with this recording, however, is its price. You can get the EMI box set of all of VW's major works, including all his symphonies and most of his operas, for less than twice the price of Chandos's Sir John. Furthermore, the performances are, in many cases, classic ones. On the other hand, you don't get Hickox's additions.
Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz