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CLASSICAL  February 2005

CLASSICAL February 2005

Subject:

Operas by Holst

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 21 Feb 2005 11:23:26 -0600

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text/plain

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        Gustav Holst
       Chamber Operas

* The Wandering Scholar
* At the Boar's Head*

English Opera Group, English Chamber Orchestra/Steuart Bedford; Men's Voices
of the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Orchestra/David Atherton*
EMI CDM 5 65127 2 Total time: 75:44

Summary for the Busy Executive: Charming, but non-essential Holst.

Aaron Copland, in maybe his wittiest joke, once called opera "la forme
fatale" - referring to the fascination the genre held for composers who,
unlike Verdi and Mozart, didn't practice it regularly and who, in Copland's
opinion, produced rather weak-kneed examples.  Holst started or finished
eight operas/operettas, only one of which has held (precariously) the
stage - Savitri - and another - The Perfect Fool - which survives in an
instrumental excerpt.  I've heard three Holst operas: Savitri and the
two here.  All of them suffer from their short length.  Professional
opera companies don't regularly mount "chamber operas," excepting, I
suppose, Cav, Pag, and Il Trittico.

More than that, of course, bars their way.  To some extent, he wound up
with bad libretti - supposedly the flaw of his own libretto to The Perfect
Fool - but Verdi has worse.  More fundamental is the problem that he's
not drawn to good libretti or to strong situation.  Savitri deserves
this charge the least, but one can't say that any of its personae are
fully-drawn people.  Furthermore, Trovatore probably has a worse libretto
than any of Holst's operas, and it's infinitely more powerful.  Holst
isn't a particularly dramatic composer - that is, he's not all that
interested in creating character conflict or even using his music to
describe character - and in this he stands in sharp contrast to his
friend Vaughan Williams.  Every Holst opera I've heard is filled with
character types - in The Wandering Scholar, the old man married to the
young wife, the ardent young man, the comic villain - rather than with
real characters.  Holst always struck me as a composer of emotional
reticence, shying away from strong display of feeling.  I also suspect
he had a terror of boring people, so he tends to speak clearly, directly,
and in as few notes as possible.  There are of course exceptions in his
output, and those happen to be or belong to his most popular pieces.
Nevertheless, when I think of typical Holst, I don't fasten on "Mars"
or "Jupiter," but on "Saturn" and "Neptune." Despite this, each opera
is a wonder of construction, the parts so seamlessly joined and the music
flowing with such precision, one gets the aural equivalent of a Faberge
egg.

The Wandering Scholar, libretto by scholar and translator Helen Waddell,
takes its story from a Chaucer-like farce.  A young wife hustles her old
husband out of the house so that she can meet her lover, a self-centered
priest.  Before wife and lover can do much, a poor young scholar shows
up asking for food, and the priest drives him from the house.  Again,
before wife and priest get going, they hear the husband returning,
and wife hides priest.  Husband arrives with the young scholar in tow.
They've met on the road, and the husband has decided to feed the young
man.  Wife says there's nothing in the house, whereupon the young man,
under the pretence of telling a fantastic tale, exposes the food and the
priest.  Husband drives priest from the house and the opera ends with
the husband rapping his wife (off-stage).  Obviously, the interest here
lies in the twists of the plot, and Holst's music drives the action
forward.  A neat opera, in many senses of the word, this lean music
neither wastes notes, nor lingers over this point or that - and it
sparkles, in the way of much of Holst's work in the Twenties, eg the
Fugal Concerto.

At the Boar's Head comes over as a bit of a stunt.  Imogen Holst, the
composer's daughter, reports that her father was reading one of the
Falstaff episodes in Shakespeare's Henry IV and realized that the speech
perfectly fit one of the melodies in the collection by Stuart publisher
John Playford.  Holst decided to write an opera based on Playford and
contemporary folk tunes.  According to the liner notes, only three of
the melodies come directly from Holst.  The action centers around the
imagined "catechism" of Prince Hal by his father, the king - with Falstaff
and Hal switching off the parts.  This is probably the best libretto
Holst ever worked with, and yet the opera doesn't differ all that
significantly in its effect from The Wandering Scholar.  There are lots
of words but to little effect here, even if they are by Shakespeare.
Holst achieves primarily movement, but it's movement every which way.
One doesn't get a sense of purposeful direction or, for that matter, the
feeling that the narrative actually means something.  The characters
move like automata and remain as closed to us at the end as at the
beginning.  We can instructively compare Holst's Falstaff with Vaughan
Williams's in Sir John in Love.  Compared to Holst, Vaughan Williams
sprawls, or seems to, putting in Elizabethan, even non-Shakespearean
lyrics to set smack in the middle of the action.  As it turns out,
however, these lyrical sections invest the characters who sing them with
great depth.  Holst's Falstaff is a chubby blowhard.  Vaughan Williams's
Falstaff, like Shakespeare's, contains, as the fat knight says himself,
worlds - a coward, a bully, a braggart, but a man full of life and an
affection for the weaknesses of others, as well as for his own.  Furthermore,
despite moments of brilliance, Holst doesn't use the tunes to very great
effect.  They tend to become simple pegs on which to hang words, and
Holst's characteristic concision and horror of digression make very
little stand out.  His great strength as a poetic, lyrical composer works
to his disadvantage on stage.  Everything registers with the same level
of intensity.

However, one gives thanks for performances like these, especially the
orchestral contributions.  The principals of The Wandering Scholar hoke
it up, but the piece can take it.  At the Boar's Head benefits greatly
from John Tomlinson as Falstaff and Philip Langridge as Hal.  Both clear
the hurdles Holst has set and rise to real drama in the "catechism."
I stress, however, that it's mainly them rather than Holst.  Bedford
delivers a clean, sprightly account of Scholar, but David Atherton, a
horribly underrated conductor, does an heroic job of pulling the amorphous
blob of Boar's Head into real shape and takes surprising advantage of
the meager opportunities Holst gives him.

Steve Schwartz

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