A NEW OPERA IN CAMBRIDGE, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 24th February 1962

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Although he finished his stint as regular music critic for the Cambridge Review at the end of 1959, as his responsibilities at Caius become much more demanding, PAT wrote one last article in 1962 – perhaps to promote a cause dear to his heart.

Cambridge musical societies can boast a fine record of achievement over the years, including such highlights as the first performance in England of Mozart’s Magic Flute and of Honegger’s King David by C.U.M.S. In 1956 the C.U. Opera Group staged Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress before it had percolated into this country beyond Glyndebourne, and after other presentations such as Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love, Carl Orff’s Catulli Carmina, Liebermann’s School for Wives and Bizet’s Don Procopio, their enterprise is evidently unabated; for they open on February 26 for a week at the Arts Theatre with the first performance in Europe of Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land.

This is a fascinating work for both musical and other reasons. It has a splendid score and that forthright dramatic quality which renders unnecessary those confusing synopses in the programme which are occasioned by obscure or ill-constructed works. It was first performed in America in 1954, the year of its composition. Copland and his librettist, Horace Everett, had been much struck by a sociological book published in 1939, “Let us now praise famous men,” a study of all sorts and conditions of men by James Agee, a writer, and Walter Evans, a photographer. Two photographs had particularly interested Everett: of a mother and her daughter. He and Copland fell to considering the impact on these people of the intrusion into their life of two men from a very different social stratum. The opera derived from this inspiration, and shows the effect of two strange men entering the life of a rural family out west. But it avoids all the monotony of a “documentary.” A rumoured rape by wandering harvesters in a near-by farmstead sets the parish by its ears. Naturally, on the arrival of two such harvesters, suspicion is rife, and, of course, the heroine must go and fall in love with one of them, and, of course, he’s the tenor. But his buddy, a good-for-nothing cynic disguised as an amateur philosopher, doesn’t want to lose a comrade, which would happen were the tenor to settle down, marry and become an honest farmer. Alas, this is a story where (as so often in life) love does not find a way. Rather poignant.

The heroine is to be played by Mary Wells, who has been at Covent Garden for some years and has sung Nedda in Pagliacci and Micaela in Carmen there. The hero is to be John Ford, whom televiewers will have seen as Tobias in Bliss’s T.V. opera Tobias and the Angel and as Cassio in Othello. The remainder of the cast is “local talent.” Joan Westwood as the mother (her excellent previous work with the Opera Group will be recalled); Tom Blodgett (Emma) as the hero’s buddy—he was soloist of the Harvard Glee Club while at that University, though he has other more athletic prowesses; and Derek Morphy (St John’s) as Grand-pa. Charles Ellis is producer, and Philip Ledger conductor.

Incidentally, Copland himself, by good fortune, is to give an open lecture in the University Music School at 5 p.m. on Monday, February 26, so I understand he will be able to put in an appearance at some rehearsals and (I hope) give the production his blessing. Meanwhile I gather the first night will be a dress occasion, so I must evict the moth from my D.J. and sew on some buttons.

Peter Tranchell