Thursday 22nd November 2018 – travelling hopefully with New Sussex Opera.

Now here’s one of the many reasons why your man loves Eastbourne. Twice a year we get a visit from New Sussex Opera. In the Summer the company puts on a fund-raising production mainly featuring its members, usually at the Birley Centre. Then in the autumn they have a fully staged show at the Devonshire Park Theatre with promising young professional singers in the principal roles. There is a focus on rarely performed operas, often but not always, by the great composers. In the past decade highlights have included: Hugh the Drover by Vaughan Williams; Puccini’s second opera Edgar; a hilarious L’etoile by Chabrier; Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon and King Arthur by Purcell. If you can’t get to Eastbourne but don’t wish to miss out on these rare treats performances are also given at other venues in e.g. Lewes, Brighton, London and, for the first time this year, Saffron Walden. Just Google New Sussex Opera for more details.

This year a true rarity, Charles Villers Stanford’s The Travelling Companion (****), last performed in the 1930s. Stanford, at least for choristers, Anglican churchgoers and listeners to Choral Evensong on Radio 3, is probably best known for his church service settings in A, F, and C. Also performed are his Songs of the Sea (sung by Gerald Finlay at the 2018 Last Night of the Proms) and Songs of the Fleet, both with words by Henry Newbolt (he of Vitai Lampada. You know……”there’s a breathless hush in the close tonight……..Play up! play up! and play the game”). Man about Eastbourne well remembers being a member of his house choir at school and singing Drake’s Drum from Songs of the Sea which won the house singing completion (c. 1973). The conductor of the choir was none other than his old mucker Pious Bob the Broker. Lest you doubt the decision it should be pointed out that the judge of the completion was William Lloyd Webber, father of Andrew and Julian, and, at that time, Director of the London College of Music. But I digress.

Less well known about Stanford is that he was both an opera buff and a keen composer of opera. He developed a taste for the form when growing up in Dublin where touring Italian opera companies would sing Rossini, Verdi and Donizetti. He then studied in Germany in the mid-1870s where he attended the second ever cycle of Wagner’s Ring. In all he wrote about a dozen operas with mixed success commercially. The Travelling Companion is his final opera, completed in 1916, but not published until after the First World War. For the libretto he went to Newbolt and the story is based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, and it is a minor gem.

NSO (with valuable help from the Stanford Society and numerous private donors) have put a great deal of effort into making the project a success. They engaged a new director Paul Higgins who has a glowing c.v. including work inter alia at the RSC, the Almeida Theatre, the Royal Opera, La Scala etc. It has paid off. He set the work in around 1916 and subtly weaves in features of the period including aspects of the Women’s Land Army and the Suffragette Movement in the female chorus and Freudian psychology, Klimt and Schiele in the relationship between the Princess and the Wizard. More prosaically I have never seen the NSO’s (amateur) chorus perform to such professional standards. Designer Isabella Van Braekel simple but flexible sets and costumes were most effective. New conductor Toby Purser considerable understanding of this music, changing pace with great aplomb as the mood dictates.

Among the leading roles English tenor David Horton who played John, a young man whose father has just died, journeying in pursuit of a new life, sang and acted successfully despite a bad cold. Julien Van Mellaerts, a young New Zealand baritone of some accomplishment, played the Travelling Companion of the title. Appearing from nowhere and departing mysteriously at the end, he looks after John, and indeed plays a major part in his winning the princess’s hand. The character is probably the spirit of John’s dead father ensuring that his son has a good start in a world without his care. Van Mellaets’ rich voice and authoritative acting show great promise. Similarly, versatile Scottish soprano Kate Valentine as the Princess was suitably dominant in setting her riddle for John to answer in order for him to marry her. Valentine has power when she needs it but also delicacy. They were well supported by Ian Beadle as the Svengali like Wizard, and Pauls Putnins as the King. Four excellent dancers were engaged for the scene in the Wizard’s cave.

It is, though, Stanford’s music that is the real star. I noted that the overture would make a good stand-alone piece, but that would be a pity as there is great richness elsewhere. After a dark and brooding first act with powerful storm scene, the rest of the opera blossoms into a melodic treat with a recurring “all in a morning glory” theme in the chorus that you leave the theatre humming. The Times’s review in 1935 was incredulous that such lyrical and aptly-conceived music could have been so neglected. It is to be hoped that after this revival we won’t have to wait another 80 or so years to hear it again. Fortunately NSO had the sense to record the performance at Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden. It will be released as a CD by SOMM – the first recording to be published of any of Stanford’s operas. I’ll try to send an email when it is available.

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