Philip Radcliffe applauds the revival of PAT’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, conducted by Guy Woolfenden, and hopes that it will soon be as widely known as it deserves.
To anyone who remembers the performance of The Mayor of Casterbridge in 1951 the prospect of hearing it again was particularly interesting and exciting; it can be said at once that the original impression of its remarkable dramatic power and beauty was not only recaptured but heightened. There have been some changes, of which the most important is the addition of a song for Henchard in the first act, which introduces for the first time the longest and finest tune of the whole work: in the original version this did not appear until the interlude between the first and second scenes of the third act, and hardly seemed to have the chance of making its full effect. The big ensemble in Act 3 in which this tune is sung by the chorus against a counter-melody for the soloists is perhaps the most impressive passage in the opera; the duet for Susan and Henchard in Act 2, the recollection of this in the scene between Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane in the last are deeply moving and in all the crowd scenes the energy of the music is unflagging. Peter Tranchell has caught some of the grand operatic manner of Richard Strauss and Puccini, but the style is very individual, and is able without any inconsistency to maintain a decidedly English character, especially in the haunting lament for Susan, and several other themes.
The production of so massive a work in a small theatre inevitably sets problems both musical and dramatic; in some of the big crowd scenes David Byram Wigfield seemed hampered by the smallness of the stage. The very full orchestration called for great care in maintaining the balance; there were moments when the voices did not penetrate entirely, but they were not frequent, and for this great credit is due to the very vital and sensitive conducting of Guy Woolfenden. The heaviest burdens of the performance undoubtedly fell upon him and upon Bruce Critchinson, who in the long and exacting part of Henchard sang with great power, and conveyed most vividly and successfully the different phases of the character. Of the other parts, Christopher Davies as Farfrae was thoroughly competent, though a little lacking in lyrical fervour. Anne Abbott gave a charming performance as Elizabeth-Jane; Nancy Talbot both sang and acted well as Susan though she should surely have looked older in Act 2: Brenda Wilkinson was a very spirited Mrs Goodenough. The Cambridge University Opera Group showed both enterprise and discrimination in reviving this opera, and it is much to be hoped that it will soon be as widely known as it deserves.