Sunday 25 August 2019

Hey, nonny, nonny

And so to the opera. Having seen a theatrical production of 'Much Ado About Nothing' earlier this year I have now been to see Charles Villiers Stanford's rarely performed opera based on the play. You might be starting to think that there are an awful lot of rarely performed operas being, well, performed; and you would be right. The summer is full of festivals whose main purpose seems to be to seek out obscure operas and stage them. In addition these things go in cycles; Handel for example was out of favour, in terms of his operas, until the 1990s and now they're everywhere.

As usual when I see something rarely done I thought it was perfectly good, and couldn't tell you why no one performs it any more. It's one of Shakespeare's more ridiculous plots and so lends itself to operatic treatment quite nicely. There's a balcony scene and the director placed Hero's traitorous maid on the actual balcony of the hall, but sadly chose not to have Borachio climbing a ladder up from the stalls to reach her. Professor Dibble, the world's foremost authority on Stanford no less, said before the performance that the composer was at his best in comic opera. Despite that I am sad to report that the whole Dogberry routine wasn't any funnier for being put to music than it is in the play. Perhaps that's what the Manchester Guardian had in mind when they wrote at the time of its first  performance: "Not even in the Falstaff of Arrigo Boito and Giuseppe Verdi have the characteristic charm, the ripe and pungent individuality of the original comedy been more sedulously preserved."

I can't tell you much about Stanford (1852-1924); the only book about him (by Professor Dibble naturally) is out of print and copies change hands for around £500, which speaking as an accountant suggests it might be worth reprinting. He taught composition to students who went on to be more well-known such as Holst and Vaughan Williams, plus others who no doubt would have gone on to great things had they not been killed in the Great War. He is undergoing a bit of a revival at the moment - if I understood Officer, sorry, Professor Dibble properly there are plans to stage another of his operas at Wexford - and there is plenty of his large output available on CD or indeed Youtube. I rather like this short setting of a poem by Mary Coleridge:

Mary Coleridge was of course related to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but she wasn't in any way related to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. To bring things full circle the latter studied under Stanford, who conducted the premiere of his pupil's most famous work 'The Song of Hiawatha'.

Incidentally, the librettist of 'Much Ado About Nothing', Julian Sturgis, also performed the same function for Sir Arthur Sullivan's single serious opera 'Ivanhoe'. However, perhaps what makes him unique amongst opera composers or librettists is that he also played in two FA Cup Finals. It was a different world in those days.

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