Showing posts with label Frederick Delius. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Frederick Delius. Show all posts

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Oranges, lemons and La Calinda...

I'm counting the days until the Wexford Opera Festival. Ten at present. Very pleased to be going back this year to an event of which I've loved every minute the times before that I have been there, and this year they're doing Delius's Koanga, a blink-and-you-missed-it rarity (it was done once at Sadler's Wells in 2007 and I blinked and missed it - or may have been away in Bosnia at the time - a pity one can't be in several places all at once). Posted below is a short piece I wrote for yesterday's Independent about why it's so special. 

First, here's Sir Malcolm Sargent, with an introduction to 'La Calinda' that isn't terribly accurate about its setting. The opera is set in Louisiana. It was Delius himself who was on an orange plantation in Florida...of which more in a mo.

Delius’s Koanga is the opera I have waited all my life to see. Stagings are so rare that if you blink, you miss it. Yet the work contains one of the composer’s best-loved pieces, ‘La Calinda’, with its irresistible oboe solo that seems all mingled smiles and tears; my husband and I both love it so much that we walked out to it after our wedding ceremony. Now, at last, Koanga is being presented complete at the Wexford Festival, Ireland – the best friend anywhere of deserving, under-performed operas.

Delius, 1907
Unfortunately it is rare for a good reason: its distinctly tricky story, based partly on the novel The Gradissimes by George Washington Cable. Koanga is an African king and Voodoo priest who has been brought to Louisiana as a slave. He loves Palmyra, the mulatto daughter of a slave girl and a white plantation owner, and agrees to convert to Christianity to marry her. But the overseer wants Palmyra for himself; everything goes horribly wrong and the tale concludes in tragedy.

Just imagine the problems such a scenario presents for a creative team in 2015. Its director, Michael Gieleta, whose staging of Maria by Roman Statkowski took Wexford by storm in 2011, nevertheless points out that the issues Koanga raises are absolutely current: religion, sexual abuse, power and of course race.

Blacking up is not an option. “The characters are defined not by their skin colour, but by their body language and by their relationships,” Gieleta says. “This is about captors and captives.” Koanga and Palmyra are played by two exciting young singers, the American baritone Norman Garrett and the South African soprano Nozuko Teto; and Gieleta’s preparations for the production included holding dance workshops in South Africa.

Back in 1895, Koanga might have seemed an unlikely topic for a British composer – but Delius had his own reasons for choosing a tragic love story set amid the toxic race relations of the Deep South. Born to a German immigrant family in Bradford, he moved to Florida in 1884, aged 22, to run an orange plantation. Here he fell in love with an African-American girl, whose family would previously have been slaves – and she bore his child. Later he returned to the US to look for her and their son. They had vanished. She may have gone into hiding for fear he would take the boy away.

This startling episode was confirmed by Eric Fenby, Delius’s amanuensis, in a recorded phone conversation with the violinist Tasmin Little, who researched the topic in 1997. Fenby was well aware, too, of how close Koanga was to its composer’s heart. “Usually, once a work was written, Delius's interest in it would wane,” he wrote. “For Koanga, however, he showed concern as though it held some secret bond that bound him to his youth in Florida. It was the one work he deplored in old age he was never likely to hear again...”

Clearly Fenby regarded Koanga as the work that was inspired by Delius’s lost love and the child he never knew. Its conductor at Wexford, Stephen Barlow, confirms the special nature of the work: “The libretto may be a bit clunky,” he says, “but some of the music has the great, sensual sweep of Delius at his finest.”

And if ‘La Calinda’ feels like smiles through tears, perhaps that was with good reason all along.  

Koanga, Wexford Festival Opera, Ireland, 21-30 October. Box office: +353 53 912 2144

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Welcome to Wexford

I've just been to Wexford to review the Opera Festival for The Independent and the piece is out now, here.

It was great to be back at the only festival where you walk through a row of terraced houses to find yourself in a state-of-the-art bijou opera house that you can't actually see until you're in it; where the first singing you hear is by the audience, who give their all in the Irish National Anthem; where the directorial team stands by the doors at the end to greet and thank everyone for being there; and where you can hear the stars before they become stars and appreciate forgotten delights of the repertoire reaching the limelight at last. Such is Wexford's reputation that the great and good of the opera world descend on it from all over. Chat with someone in the hotel lift and he'll probably turn out to be the chairman of an opera company from the other side of the globe. If you're the sort of music-lover who feels that an opera doesn't necessarily have to be as good as Don Giovanni in order to merit a hearing, Wexford is for you.

As usual, the festival conjured a trio of rare marvels out of the back catalogue of operatic history: works by Chabrier, Cilea and Delius, with the latter's A Village Romeo and Juliet calling for particular spotlight in our favourite Marmitey-composer's anniversary year and supported here by the Delius Trust. You know 'The Walk to the Paradise Garden', which is an orchestral interlude from this opera? The rest of the evening is equally gorgeous. Honest to goodness, guv: it's one of the most beautiful operas I have ever heard.

I'm in danger of turning into one of those people who rants on and on and on about Delius, but I was bowled over, partly by the poignancy of the work - it distils the tragic beauty of life into a potent brew indeed - but perhaps even more by the anguish that a piece so poetic, so delicate, so exquisite, has had to go unappreciated all these years. I hope that's going to change now, because it should. OK, it doesn't match operatic norms - it's slow, the libretto is weak, the protagonists are Swiss (is that the kiss of death?). But so what? Silk chiffon is not invalid just because it isn't cashmere.

Chabrier's Le roi malgre lui (King In Spite of Himself) proved to be a totally bananas concoction in which the French king is elected king of Poland against his will. For Chabrier, it provides an excuse for a dazzling array of cleverness, confusion and coloratura, poised somewhere between Gounod and Ravel. The second act in particular is a Laduree's-window of truly yummy set pieces - waltz, barcarolle, Gypsy song - any of which would make brilliant stand-alone concert pieces. Shame about the production, but the singing was great. Ditto for the Cilea L'Arlesiana - based on the same play for which Bizet wrote his very different incidental music. A very full-on Italian verismo job, this, much relished in the pit by David Angus and the enthusiastic orchestra, and on stage turning up several potential new stars, notably the Italian mezzo Annunziata Vestri and the Russian tenor Dmitry Golovnin. The latter's lunchtime recital was also a major highlight of my visit. I enjoyed his performance so much that I grabbed him for an impromptu interview, which I shall bring you at the first opportunity.

Meanwhile I'd have loved to see the face of the Chabrier's super lead soprano, Nathalie Paulin, on learning the identity of the gentleman she selected at random from the audience to dance with her in her cabaret show. He was Antony Craig, production editor of Gramophone. Read his blogpost about Wexford's Delius here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hello, is that the Paradise Garden? Please could I speak to Ken Russell?

Come back, Ken Russell, and please, please have another shot at Debussy? My latest post for The Spectator Arts Blog casts an eye over the late, great filmmaker's approach to two of this year's big anniversary boys: Delius and Debussy. One worked. The other didn't, but should have. Read the whole thing here.