Monday, 29 June 2009

Perelandra the Opera

Attending this musical event last Friday evening was an agreeably entertaining experience. However, I am afraid that I must disagree with the overheard opinion of one earnest C. S. Lewis devotee: "Beautiful beyond belief!". It might be possible (though rather difficult) to make a musically and dramatically compelling stage version of C. S. Lewis's most theological of science fiction novels; but (as much as I love his music) Donald Swann was perhaps not the ideal composer to attempt it. It is a pity that Gustav Holst died nine years before the novel was published.

Don't get me wrong: much of it was really rather good. The opening scene, in which the book's internal narrator with his doctor friend (identified as C. S. Lewis and Humphrey Havard) stumble into Ransom's cottage on a dark night to await his return from outer space, was a successful chunk of modern-day musical theatre, though I consider that obscuring the words by having more than one character singing at the same time is a flaw in an otherwise naturalistic piece. The musical style was generally what one might hope from a modern opera: supportive without being intrusive, occasionally pungent or angular without being objectionable, and orchestrated with much tuned and untuned percussion. However, as the line "I cannot imagine Perelandra" soared on a thread of eminently singable but slightly too predictable melody, I couldn't help thinking that Mr Swann had stepped a little too far in the direction of his more natural habitat on the West End musical stage. If you are aiming for something on a par with the chamber operas of Holst or Britten (and Swann occasionally does come quite near this), it is distracting for the listeners to find themselves suddenly in a musical world closer to that of Salad Days.

As we went on, the music continued to wander around between styles in a way which the producer, in his programme notes, lauded as eclectic, but which I found to be something of a distraction. Every now and then, Swann's enjoyably scrunchy harmony would suddenly culminate in a cadence so conventional that it could have come from a Victorian church anthem. The result seemed as much of a jolt as if a Flanders and Swann ditty had ended in a Schoenbergian discord. The use of uneven Balkan rhythms was an occasional feature, but its contribution was limited, and added nothing that composers such as Holst had not been doing long before: in an orchestral tutti near the end, the omission of a beat every few measures felt like mere affectation.

In word-setting, odd rhythms can be more of a hindrance than wholly irregular barring, and surely few serious librettos are best set to dance rhythms of any kind. One particularly beautiful passage, in which a solo flute undulated above soft chords, was let down by the banality of its melodic development; it rose wonderfully, but came down exactly the same way as it had gone up. (Then, even so great a composer as Vaughan Williams could suffer from such a momentary lack of inventiveness.) The name "Maleldil" is several times set to an irritating three-note phrase, and an exceedingly prosaic choral comment ("Day and night, night and day, the attack of the enemy continues") has a correspondingly plodding tune. (I'm pretty sure Swann himself sang this section when he gave an illustrated talk to the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society in the 1980s, and I think I thought the same then!) In general, the orchestration -- by Max Saunders -- seemed excellent to me (what do I know?), with harp, piccolo, and (as mentioned) percussion used to particularly good effect. Occasionally, though, the harmony felt somehow bottomless, despite the presence of double basses, horns, trombones, and bassoon in the orchestral line-up. I wondered if this was the result of orchestrating the work of an essentially pianistic composer, for whom sustained bass lines might not be a natural mode of writing.

The partly-spoken scene in which Weston arrives on Perelandra in his spaceship would benefit from lighting effects such as projection: even without them, it did manage to evoke the atmosphere of a black-and-white film version of Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, which is very much where the figure of Weston is drawn from. Much of the action was recounted by a narrator (John Amis), leaving the singers only to comment on it before and after. The most successful sections, I felt, were Ransom's accompanied monologues, where the singer expresses the character's wrestling with his conscience and the perils of the situation against an accompaniment which skilfully catches the mood. Less successful were the songs of praise to Maleldil. It just seems to be hard for composers to recapture the fine, careless rapture of Haydn's Creation in any later musical idiom, and as the King and Lady of Perelandra echoed each other in a pious tableau, I was reminded of the stilted stained-glass attitudes of Elgar's Apostles. The grand finale was stirring, though, and the whole piece was shot through with occasional delights.

The word "tableau" puts in focus the dramatic problem. Opera is not a medium well suited to the clear depiction of complex and violent action, and episodes such as the fight between Ransom and Weston (the Un-man) were recounted in narration by the chorus. The title "opera" seems less appropriate here; this concert performance was presented as a "dramatic oratorio", and I can see why in the second attempt to produce this work it was termed a "music drama". In terms of potential staging, Perelandra falls into that awkward region inhabited by such works as Purcell's Fairy Queen or Handel's Acis and Galatea: not a straight concert-work, but not quite satisfactory as a stage-work either. My own thought was that it would be best served by mixed-media presentation, part chamber opera, part modern ballet, with costume and lighting effects, but without an attempt at realistic theatre: the dramatic sequences could perhaps be best realized by the technique of representing each character by both a singer and a dancer (as in Birtwhistle's Mask of Orpheus).

The singers for the most part did an excellent job. Neil Jenkins (Lewis) was in fine voice, though he might have done well to clutch a Pavarottian handkerchief in order to suppress that urge of the aging recitalist to express his musical feeling (or to feel his way through the music) with conductor-like gestures. The years have perhaps dealt less kindly with the larynx of Rupert Forbes (Humphrey), but he provided a good enough foil. Leon Berger (Weston) was splendid, even though the low tessitura of much of his part was clearly a little taxing and did not always carry. Hakon Vramsmo (Ransom) was engaging, lyrical, and mellifluous, and Alexander Anderson-Hall (King) produced some of those wonderful top tenor notes of the kind that stir the hairs on the back of your neck. Jane Streeton (Lady) was graceful and appealing, though occasionally overpowered by the orchestra, at least from where I was sitting. Clive McCombie (Spider) had a suitable gravitas for the king of the creepy-crawlies, and also covered some bass solo sections in the chorus part. (I remember his name from a rare performance of Swann's unpublished "South African Song Cycle" at the University Church in about 1983, though I wouldn't have recalled his face.) The brief solo aria for treble was nicely done, if (as with most boy trebles) quiet and a bit colourless, with uncertain tuning through a couple of Swann's ornamental twiddles. The choir dealt capably with what was clearly, in places, quite a tricky score, with only a few minor disagreements about final note-lengths, and the occasional "piano-crescendo" entry betraying that collective uncertainty which with all choral singers are only too familiar. The soprano solos from within the choir were accurate and atmospheric.

As for the venue, the elegant Sheldonian Theatre lived up to its reputation among Oxford music-lovers as the most uncomfortable concert hall in Christendom. I cannot think of any other auditorium where not only each row, but entire sections of seating can be reached only by treading on other members of the audience. Long ago I vowed never to sit on someone else's feet in the steeply-sloping upper gallery -- unless the concert was so poorly attended that I could stretch full length along one of the narrow shelves that passes for a row of seats (as I once did to listen to a student performance of a Beethoven symphony). Old acquaintance with the row numbers (from having been a steward for Music at Oxford concerts) enabled me to select a seat with a back, but leg-room was still severely constrained: the only proper seats are the chairs, where the floor is level but the prices are steep, and the acoustics are not great. Opening a window for ventilation on a warm evening wafts in the raucous cries of drinkers at the "White Horse" and the "Kings Arms".

Donald Swann is said to have considered Perelandra his masterpiece. Certainly it seems to be the only thing he attempted on this scale, but I fear it is inevitably doomed to stand alongside Sir Arthur Sullivan's Ivanhoe and Scott Joplin's Treemonisha as a noble effort in serious opera by a composer whose light music will live for ever.

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