BELLA BARTOCK has returned to Inside Croydon Towers, tiara slightly askew, a couple of pages of tightly-typed copy in her be-gloved hand, after the latest high-brow premiere to be staged at the Fairfield Halls
Over the years, I have always found it difficult to untangle criticism of the artistic merit of premiere pieces from the performance of the artists.
Here, at the Fairfield Halls’ first performances of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s long-lost Thelma, it was the singers who come out on top with a very awkward piece.
To have your main operatic protagonists named “Thelma” and “Eric” gives a clue that Coleridge-Taylor was going to struggle with the libretto in this unintended Edwardian pastiche of Wagnerian Aryan motifs and Gounod’s Faustian hellish ending.
The music itself improves in the second and thirds acts and does give hints of late Romantic threads from Mahler, Dvorak and Brahms.
But, oh dear, it might have been better if we had been spared the surtitles of the clunking verse. They only reminded us of the forced nature of the rhyming.
It was the libretto that led the Carl Rosa Opera Company to bin the work, and clearly Coleridge-Taylor’s skills lay elsewhere, as seen in better known pieces like his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding-feast.
Perhaps the Thelma music was reminiscent, too, of Sullivan and the work might well have benefited from a Gilbert’s input on the libretto, even though this version had benefited from tweaking by the director.
In fact, a bit of Gilbertian nonsense would probably be the best way to make this opera work if it were to be re-performed.
Oliver Hunt’s knowingly arch style of hamming up the role of Djaevelen, “an evil being”, in fact the devil, drew vaudeville style boos at the curtain call, but this just underlined how much he had engaged with the audience.
Perhaps if the opera were played somewhat less seriously it would work better, because there is no way that this is Wagner, even if there are Norwegian water sprites and a Parsifalian holy grail of a lost golden cup to be retrieved.
This is not to decry the performers and Surrey Opera, who brought this only opera of Croydon’s favourite son to delightful life.
A large chorus was haunting in its off-stage singing and attractive in its densely packed tableaux.
Håkan Vramsmo was convincing in his Nordic anti-hero role as Carl and Alberto Sousa as Eric was robust in his singing if somewhat peculiar in his non-Nordic Ahmadiyyan style hat.
There was a beautiful duet with Joanna Weeks as Thelma. This was only topped by a quintet of the five voices of the leading characters.
Tim Baldwin, who only came to opera at the age of 35, was a characterful King Olaf.
Patricia Robertson sang and glided across the stage convincingly as elfin Trolla while only being occasionally drowned out by a large orchestra themselves occasionally engulfed in dry ice affects.
The singers did well to tackle the other dryness in evidence, the parched acoustics of the Ashcroft, that are not best suited to opera.
What was encouraging was to see the Ashcroft full. There is a demand for opera in Croydon and Surrey and perhaps the councillors with a reputation for paltry arts should take some delight in this success by promoting more.
The interest in the performance suggests that the year’s festival of Coleridge -Taylor music in Croydon, with more than 20 events to come will be a success.
- Coleridge-Taylor opera to premiere at Ashcroft Theatre (insidecroydon.com)
- Thelma – review (guardian.co.uk)
- What has Bashford done with Croydon’s £20,000 projector? (insidecroydon.com)