It is almost impossible to write a completely successful opera. To speak only of the technique, it is a question of combining music, libretto, scenery and production in equal excellence. If one falls short, the whole is spoilt and no amount of excellence in one can save another part. Little wonder then that few operas succeed or that when they do their composers are old and experienced in failure. But this schooling of failure may ultimately produce a great opera—a goal that has not yet been achieved in one attempt, nor probably ever will be. The difficult task of the critic is to approach each new attempt, to appraise what is successful and to discourage what is not, remembering that Tristan could not have been written before Fliegende Holländer, nor Othello before Macbeth. In this hopeful spirit we approach Mr Peter Tranchell’s opera, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which was performed for the first time at the Arts Theatre during the Cambridge Festival.
The subject, based on Hardy’s novel of the same name, was a difficult choice. The story covers a period of over twenty years: a very awkward thing to convey on the operatic stage. Nevertheless the plot, as a plot and not an adaptation, was excellently devised. It stood on its own as a study in the rise and decline of one man, and with that in mind Mr Tranchell boldly cut out several important characters and altered the relationship between Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane. The libretto was not so successful. An opera libretto should be a vehicle rather for musical implication than for direct explanation. By realising implication the audience is drawn into the argument and will respond more than if it has to accept direct explanation passively. Largely due to the definite periods of time covered in between scenes and the events of these unstaged periods, explanation formed too large a part of the libretto. Most of it occurred at the beginning of scenes, resulting in too long a delay before music could take much part in the matter.
Mr Bentley’s production and scenery did not often rise above a generally satisfactory level. There were well-conceived moments such as the arrival of Farfrae as Mayor, and the final scene was made moving by simple and restrained production. But on two occasions the production was bad enough to hinder the performance seriously. The opening scene, intended to represent the milling crowds at Weydon Fair, was so full of obstructing and inessential scenery that the large chorus could scarcely move; indeed, on some nights several members of the chorus seemed irrevocably wedged with their backs to the conductor, which resulted in a more complex score than the one Mr Tranchell had composed. The second bad flaw occurred during the tavern scene when Elizabeth-Jane was made to flirt unbecomingly with Farfrae. Such behaviour was inconsistent in a girl who was later to repudiate her father so self-righteously. A more modest reading of the scene with Farfrae making the first advances would have been better.
The two main impressions given by the music were of tremendous emotional drive and unfailing dramatic timing. The intense general harmonic level at times made climaxes only possible by increasing the volume of sound, but the energy was unceasing and the score was packed with striking melodic invention. A lengthier working out of some ideas would have given point to their being repeated later in the opera. As it was, Mr Tranchell too often passed on to new material, and only by studying the score or by constant hearing did the significance of the repeated ideas become evident. The dramatic timing was unfailingly effective. It is most difficult to calculate how many notes are required to cover a movement, a moment of crisis, and all the other effects demanding careful timing on the stage. Mr Tranchell seemed never to make a mistake in this, the most intuitive part of an opera composer’s technique.
The performance, being largely amateur, could not do full justice to the complicated score. Moreover, owing to the exigencies of University life, only three weeks’ rehearsal was possible prior to the performance. The chorus especially suffered by this, but they sang and acted with great zest and enthusiasm which amply made up for their sins of occasional omission and confusion. Robert Rowell, as Henchard the Mayor, integrated the performance by his intelligent acting and amazingly clear singing. Throughout his long and arduous part every word was perfectly audible, and he elicited wholehearted sympathy for a character whose actions would not have been above reproach, especially towards his wife Susan, movingly played by José Stubbings. Mrs Goodenough, the furmity woman, was sung by Isabel Faulkner. It was an enviable part, and Miss Faulkner made a delightfully vulgar character-study of it. The two lovers, Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae, played by Anne Keynes and Antony Vercoe, were naturally paler characters, and did not over-emphasise their parts. Elizabeth-Jane had some particularly awkward moments of production to contend with; but both sang with great charm, especially in the love-duet in the last scene. A last word of praise must go to the boy Abel Whittle, played by David Rye.
The financial risk involved in putting on a week of opera at a small theatre like the Arts is very great, especially when the opera is a new one, by a comparatively little-known composer, and performed by a largely amateur cast. The Cambridge Festival Planning Committee is to be congratulated on taking this risk in the spirit of artistic adventure for which Cambridge is justly famous.
R. J. L. [Raymond Leppard]