Composer: Charles Villiers Stanford
Libretto: Julian Sturgis (after Shakespeare)
Director: David Ward
Conductor: Christopher Pelly
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The Northern Opera Group deserves enormous credit for giving two performances of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Much Ado about Nothing as the major work in its imaginative five-day Leeds Opera Festival, themed around Shakespeare in opera. There has probably been only one professional production of Stanford’s opera in England in over 100 years, though Wexford Festival has also staged it – and it certainly merits more attention than that.
How good is Much Ado? Apparently, the first performance in 1901 was “well, but not rapturously received”, and the passing of 118 years rather confirms that reaction. Its premiere was only 10 years after the last major triumph of Gilbert and Sullivan and some of the “Fa-la-la-ing” and “Heigh-nonny-noing” has a hint of G&S, but generally Much Ado is a quite different beast, with no spoken dialogue, fairly long through-composed sections and a tendency to extended ensembles, with very few songs in strophic form.
The opera sticks much more closely to the original play than Berlioz’ Beatrice and Benedict. Hero and Claudio are at least as much to the fore as the participants in the “merry war” – in fact, after a promising start, a touch more merriment would not come amiss. Julian Sturgis’ libretto is cleverly done, conflating scenes and characters (Borachio, but no Conrade, for instance, Dogberry, but no Verges), with neat internal rhymes attached to Shakespearean prose and fairly natural-sounding Elizabethan pastiche in extra scenes. Structurally it has several felicities – bookending the gulling of Benedick with Romeo and Juliet-style garden-to-balcony scenes for Hero and Claudio works really well – but the narrative sometimes lacks momentum.
To listeners accustomed to Stanford as a writer of church anthems and stirring songs of the sea, the sprightly comedy of the opening must come as a pleasant surprise, a reminder that Stanford was a very considerable composer of wide range, a noted symphonist and the composer of six operas before Much Ado. Some of the serious emotional music has less impact, and, without questioning Sturgis’ skill, it’s possible to imagine a less earnest second half.
David Ward’s direction of characters is simple, effective and convincing, the overall concept less so. The setting in the Southern States of the USA, post-Korean War, seems a mere convenience, though it may have helped the young cast’s ease of movement and gesture – they do pretty well at coming over as real people. Update any play or opera and you hit snags – what about the swords? – but this is unnecessarily confusing. For one example of many, take Seacole, the only member of the Watch to survive into the opera. According to the fanciful synopsis, this is “Police Cadet Seacole”, the libretto – faithfully transcribed in the helpful surtitles – identifies him several times as an old man, and in fact, Seacole is played, very appealingly, by the young and female Grace Watkins.
Without exception, vocal standards are extremely high. Roger Paterson’s tenor sounds slightly strained early on, but he warms to deliver an intense and assured vocal performance as Claudio, as does Charlotte Hoather whose Hero, as well as being beautifully sung, is unusually spirited. Phil Wilson (Benedick) and Catrin Woodruff (Beatrice) are the most believable characters on stage and leave us regretting that Sturgis/Stanford didn’t give them more time together.
And then it’s a whole string of basses and bass-baritones, Borachio the only tenor, all of them excellent, singing the opera’s blander sections capably and seizing their opportunities for biting aggression or balm-spreading legato. Christopher Pelly’s conducting is assured and alert and the 26-piece orchestra responds admirably.
Stanford was no Verdi (who coincidentally died four months before Much Ado’s premiere), but it’s good to be reminded of the quality of the music of a sadly neglected operatic composer.
Leeds Opera Festival runs until August 27, 2019 | Image: Contributed