15 OCTOBER 1954, Page 12


THE English Opera Group's short season at Sadler's Wells while the resident company was on tour brought nothing entirely new. The Turn of the Screw had been done at Venice, The Dinner Engagement and Love in a Village at Aldeburgh—though this last was again cut, speeded up and much improved. The Rape of Lucretia remained unchanged, and there was only a new staging of The Beggar's Opera. The great interest of the Group's appearance in London, the first for some time, was the reassessment of their work that it invited at the beginning of an operatic season almost unprecedentedly rich in productions of new works by English composers. One of the main objects of the foundation of the Group after the war was to make possible more economical operatic performances. It was not an entirely new idea. Stravinsky had done something similar in The Soldier's Tale. And the object was not, of course, to give re- arranged versions of existing operas, except early ones that could legitimately be 'realised' for the resources of the company, like Dido and Aeneas, Monteverdi's II Corn- battbnento, The Beggar's Opera, and other ballad operas. It was to give living com- posers that stimulus and outlet for operatic composition which had long been lacking owing to the difficulties and expense of getting a full-scale opera to the stage— difficulties that had been brought home to Britten over the production of Peter Grimes.

In practice things have not worked out like this. Having reduced the need for large subsidies, the main problem for all opera houses, the Group found itself faced with an even more pressing need—for works to perform. Very few composers besides Britten have taken advantage of the oppor- tunities it offers, and those who have have not been notably successful. It may be that they agree with The Times, which after one of the productions decided that the whole idea of chamber opera was mistaken and unfruitful. There is certainly no work in their repertory that will stand comparison with Britten's various contributions. Lennox Berkeley's A Dinner Engagement is a frivolous little piece, dragging out its pleasant joke a quarter of an hour too long, and much inferior, as far as it is comparable (that is in the quality and interest of its musical invention) to his full-scale opera Nelson. Wilfrid Mellers's melodrama The Shepherd's Daughter, designed for the resources of the Group, though not yet performed by them, has more substance, but again has not the compelling quality of his bigger opera The Tragical! History of Christopher Marlowe. The most successful work other than Britten's is Arthur Oldham's version of the ballad-opera Love in a Village, which in its latest, heavily cut form makes a very agtteable one-act piece, with a few very beautiful settings and a number of attractive ones, making a big enough proportion of this more compact whole to sustain interest and pleasure all through. One of the virtues Postage on this issue: Inland and Overseas Id.; Canada (Canadian Magazine Post) Id. of this work, too, is that it sounds, like Britten's works, and unlike the others, as though it was genuinely conceived for this company. For Britten the foundation of the Group was closely bound up with the conception of The Rape of Lucretia, and his writing for the chamber ensemble sounds so effortless, natural and inevitable that it is impossible to consider the instrumentation as separate from the general dramatic and musical conception. In the later chamber operas his writing has developed a great deal, until in The Turn of the Screw it some- times hardly sounds like the same orchestra, but the same impression of an absolute indivisibility of conception always remains. Oldham, his pupil, in Love in a Village, reproduces the tone and manner of Britten's writing to such perfection that some of it could- be . mistaken for original Britten. Berkeley and Metiers, not his pupils, and not merely 'realising' a ballad-opera but writing Original works, naturally try to avoid sounding, even in their instrumenta- tion, too much like Britten, but neither succeeds in finding an equally convincing and authentic style of treatment. Berkeley comes nearer to it in his Stabat Mater than in A Dinner Engagement, in which his writing though fluent and skilful is character- less. 'Mellers's is less fluent, and gives the impression of having been done for the Group's resources as a tour de force and with a practical eye to the chance of performance, when musically and dramatically another kind of orchestration would have done as well, if not better. And the instrumentally most effective pages in both works, as in. Oldham's, are those that sound borrowed from Britten.

This perhaps is the explanation of the general reluctance of the response by com- posers to the, opportunities offered by the existence of the Group. They are not so much encouraged by this stimulus of the opportunities it offers as inhibited by Britten's unsurpassable example and exhaus- tive mastery, and probably feel that he has exhausted all the possibilities of this par- ticular medium except what his genius alone can still discover in it.

But although the formation of the company has not, in this respect, had the result that was intended, it has not been wasted. For what led to it, Britten's talent for opera, and his determination to go on writing in this form, and see his works produced, has stimulated a revival of a more general interest in native opera in this country, so that not only could he, after a few years, return to full-scale opera, and find a demand and a stage for it, but other composers were equally encouraged to write operas for normal resources and are now at the happy stage when in one season three new operas by English composers are being produced in the national opera houses. This idyllic situation they, and 'we, owe very largely to Britten's enthusiasm and talent, and it is hard that his own company has had to suffer for it. The conditions that the English Opera Group was intended to meet no longer exist, and it is not proving so useful or attractive to composers as was hoped. Britten, the one composer who could do without it even if those conditions still prevailed, is wasting his talent by carrying it more or less single-handed when he could be filling the world's opera houses. The time has perhaps come when he should let it drop and concentrate on doing that. Let others revive it if they can when the present English idyll ends. COLIN MASON