A Village Romeo and Juliet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, QEH, South Bank Centre, 25 September 2012Posted on 26 September 2012
This lyric drama in six scenes by Frederick Delius is based on a novel by Gottfried Keller, inspired by a report in the Swiss newspaper Zürcher Freitagszeitung from 3 September 1847. A young man of 19 and girl of 17 had fallen in love despite the enmity of their peasant families. One evening the young couple danced together at a local inn; the next day they were found dead in a nearby meadow.
Keller’s novel elaborated these essentials by including an itinerant fiddler who has land between the two families, but could not legally inherit it because he is illegitimate. He is happy for the young people to use it, and the drama starts with them, Sali (Romeo) and Vreli (Juliet), as children. With the family quarrel leading to lawsuits that eventually bring ruin to both, they are forbidden to play together.
By Scene 2, six years later, they meet again and fall in love. Their clandestine encounters are on the Fiddler’s land, but her father Marti catches them and Sali strikes him to the ground. Marti later loses his reason and leaves the house, which is put up for sale. After his departure, Sali enters and the young couple settle by the fire to sleep. Both dream the same dream, of being married in the old church at Seldwyla, and we hear organ and bells. A lovely crescendo starting on the harp and strings brings morning, and thus ends Scene 4 and the first half.
The singing got off to a terrific start with Christopher Maltman as Sali’s father Manz singing powerfully. Andrew Shore sang Marti, and though I thought the pitch was rather too low for him in parts he came into his own at the end of Scene 3 when he catches the two lovers together. This great singing actor showed sudden intense anger, giving this moment huge dramatic impact.
As the young lovers, Anna Devin gave a gentle and sweetly sung portrayal of Vreli, and Joshua Ellicott endowed Sali with a strongly lyrical tone. Together their duets were excellent, soaring to wonderful heights in Scenes 4 and 6, though it was hard to hear the words despite the English text. David Wilson-Johnson did well in this respect, singing very clearly as the fiddler.
In scene 5 six soloists joined the lovers and fiddler at front stage, and with the chorus at the rear we are at the local fair, the lady soloists singing with great vivacity. But Sali and Vreli feel out of place and walk together to the paradise garden. This famous piece of music was so beautifully conducted that I found myself carried through time to another world. Finally in Scene 6 the rumpus of the common world returns, and the lovers re-enter. The fiddler suggests they join him in the vagabond life, but a bargeman is heard on the river and they decide to leave together. Taking a barge they cast off, and drift to the middle of the river where Sali removes the plug from the hull. They fall into each others arms and the barge begins to sink
A wonderful performance all round, with Ronald Corp’s conducting of the New London Orchestra producing glowing crescendos. The Walk to the Paradise Garden was beautifully played and this concert performance of Delius’s fourth opera was a treat, though sadly a one-off.