Thursday, October 22, 2015

An open letter to...Frederick Delius

Dear Fritz, or Fred if you prefer,

Greetings from the 21st century. One of the best things about living in the Future is that I have a chance to write to you via a medium you never dreamed of. I love your music. Not everyone does, but you knew that and I suspect you didn't much care. The more I have learned about you, your life, your being, your impassioned determination to drain every last drop of sensual experience in your cup of life-force, the more strongly your music speaks to me...

I could go on, but we need to get to the point and it is this: Koanga. They are doing it proud at the Wexford Festival at the moment. Michael Gieleta has created a production that besides being poetic and imaginative, maintains dignity at the most difficult moments - yes, Fred, a Voodoo rite could be very difficult moment in a stage work in 2015 - and there are moments that are heart-rending, beautiful, sensitive and enthralling. Moments when you sink into that great featherbed of Delian music and find you're lost in the passing clouds of dove-grey and sunset gold and the tropical night and...the thing is, they're doing it, they're doing it without a single cut (bravo, sympathetic conductor Stephen Barlow) and there are some terrific singers to hear. Palmyra - Nozuko Teto from South Africa - is especially marvellous. Norman Garrett from the US is Koanga - tall, strong, charismatic, with a beautiful warmth to his voice - and Uncle Joe, Aubrey Allicock, is simply outstanding. The chorus sing their hearts out, too.

I keep thinking how happy you would be to see black singers from America and Africa starring on our stages, and to such a top-class level. You loved Chloe, an African-American girl in Florida; she had your child. A son - but a Palmyra to some degree, half and half. How happy you would have been, too, to know that the president of the USA shares that background today.

But you've got one big problem, Fred. It's that libretto. I'm on tricky ground here, because I'm in the middle of writing a libretto myself - more about that another time - and I am fully aware that if the work as a whole is good the composer gets the credit and if it isn't the writer gets the blame. In Koanga's case, first of all, the story has a lot going for it. It seems remarkable to us, here in 2015, that back in the 1890s you homed in on the subject of slavery, and the associated abuse and suffering and injustice, for an opera. We hear that the very first performance, presumably in cut-down form, was at the Princesse de Polignac's place in Paris - probably in that beautiful wood-panelled music room at the back of her magnificent house - and that one Gabriel Fauré was among the musicians who played in it. We wonder who played the banjos. And we imagine what an impact its topic and its insights must have made there, where they used to call you Le Grand Anglais.

The framing device - Uncle Joe telling the tragic love story to the young girls - has been made to work very well here in Wexford; the chorus takes on the story and experiences it, and there is something oddly agonising about the way that at the end they take down their homespun sun and pack it away it a wooden box.

Palmyra's ultimate rejection of Christianity in favour of the culture of her ancestors and Koanga himself must have been terrifically powerful in your time, and retains the potential to shock here in Ireland. The central conflict - the way Koanga is torn between keeping his African identity and his love for Palmyra (who is maid to Donna Clotilda and happens to be her half-sister....) - has potential for a magnificent drama.

But listen, Fred, darling - and I want this to be constructive in every way - your drama is absolutely all over the place. Really. You have great ingredients, ones that would stand a chance of working today better than ever before, but you, and your librettist Charles F Keary flunk it whenever you can. I see that the libretto was even updated in 1972, to which revelation I can only say, well, we need to have another go at it now. It's not only little awkwardnesses like the skirting of the issue in the sacrifice, or the oak tree above Koanga's ancestors' graves - oaks? In Dahomey? (That's Benin to the 21st century).

More than that. Not very much happens, and when it does, it happens so fast that you'd miss it even if it wasn't happening mostly off stage. That's ok - great excuse for yummy musical wallowing - but what is not OK is that you don't give us any development to speak of in the relationship between Koanga and Palmyra, yet expect us to believe in their all-powerful love. You need less of the chorus obsessing about bird-calls and more of the actual personalities. Palmyra's dignity when Koanga is killed is touching in itself, but you'd think she'd see what would happen when she exorts him to murder Perez the overseer who is harrassing her; and though she says she can't live without him, we don't feel her grief deeply enough in the score.

And much is confusing. Where does Palmyra go when she's abducted from the wedding, and why? Where does Koanga go when he runs away - how far, and for how long? Doesn't Palmyra have more to say and feel upon learning that she is the madam's half-sister?  (As for "Where is Palmyra?" - I regret that the current answer is "In Syria, being destroyed"...)

This could go on. I don't know if much more could be done to refashion the libretto now to suit the existing music. But if I could time-travel, as well as writing to you on the inter-era-net, I'd go to you and say: Fred, please, give me that script and I will sort it out for you. We'll home in on the real drama, the psychology, the timeless issues, we'll get rid of the embarrassed and erroneous bits and bobs and we'll fix the structure and the flow. And if we get it right together, that opera won't be confined to rare repertoire status. It will be cheered to the skies all over the world.

As things are, we have to make the most of a work that is, sad to say, deeply flawed. Yet there's so much in it that is so beautiful and so well worth hearing. It's one of the truisms in today's opera world that we hear basically the same hard core of masterpieces over and over and over again. When something pitches up that is not quite as good as Don Giovanni, very few people dare to take a risk on it. Come to think of it, Don Giovanni has problems too. I fear that a variety of people are going to be really, really mean about Koanga now. But if we discount human creations for not being 100 per cent perfect, we're cutting off our noses to spite our faces. We're reducing our appreciation of creativity and its worth and meaning. We're limiting our experience and our range and our internal space for the sake of - of what? That dreaded word, "snobbery" does come to mind and I wish it didn't. And if you remember, into Persian carpets a mistake is traditionally woven (as I understand it) because no human creation may be perfect in any case.

What Wexford does, Fred, is to bring us works like this, showing how much good stuff there is out there, lying neglected yet ready to be enjoyed and discovered. Sometimes they even end up entering "the repertoire". Sometimes they don't, yet they can live on in our minds as treasured memory, even if we never see them again. They broaden our minds and our understanding of our world, such as it is.

I hope Koanga will return and travel. If it doesn't, I'm glad to have been here to see it. And today in Wexford it is Mascagni's Guglielmo Ratcliff, about which the buzz around town is quite hot.

Thank you, Fred, for being you. For not selling out. For taking up life and drinking its ecstasy. And for giving us that ecstasy in the form of music. You have your devotees here and now. Know that, whatever happens, you are loved.

Jessica x