29 JANUARY 1960, Page 13


The Literary Gang

By DAVID CAIRNS THINGS are really beginning to world of London opera. CEdiptts move at last in the egg-bound Rex has become all the rage with the musical public; after a thin second night the rush of demands for tickets, stimulated by the Sunday papers and by the extract shown on the BBC's Monitor pro- gramme, seems to have astonished as much as it delighted the Sadler's Wells box office, and the management must be kicking itself for not having arranged more than five performances. It is true that public opinion had been softened up by a careful propaganda campaign in the press as well as by Stravinsky's own appearance as con- ductor in a much-heralded concert performance of the work; and in all the raving and rapture that now surround it there is, as the old gang doubtless do not fail to point out, a powerful element of snobbery, Stravinsky now being the OK name. bout this should not worry us. Most new things in art—and in the London of 1960 CEdiptts is new— have to be artificially fashionable before they can be genuinely popular : it is an evolution of taste that most people, critics included, must go through confess I can only now say that I honestly like the music of Edipus, as opposed merely to being like the fumbling Scotsman in Peter Sellers 's skit on the Critics—`strangely impressed'). All we need are more performances; and these we will surely get, now that the public has shown itself s,), hearteningly ready to pay for them. If Sadler's Hells, having allowed Blue beard's Castle and its far from lively production a very decent innings, Will now drop it from the double bill and give us 4 Soldier's Tale instead, so much the better ' „,13 Edipus, however fresh it sounds, was critten more than thirty years ago. Several things ttae got to happen before the tradition of native Wish opera can properly be said to be Ilt of its cradle; and one of them is the creation of practical means by which contemporary 1.,11glish composers and, even more important, their can afford to experiment and learn, from ell' own errors, to write for the opera house— la, other words, an opera workshop. There is a plan afoot for the New Opera Company to set up ; orlel' a workshop with regular Sunday evening per- 'mances at Sadler's Wells. At present the rarity of the occasional new and offbeat opera exposes its weaknesses to a quite disproportionate concentration of critical fire, at the same time without the well-tried procedures and facilities of a workshop to fall back O% it is apt to be performed in a makeshift and adequate manner; isolated, with the heaviest etlos trained on it, it is blasted off the face of the a torth. Thomas Eastwood's chamber opera Ckris- attiher Sly, which was given a single performance le Royal Court last Sunday evening, has had a se°rilful press; and it would be hard to maintain evat Sunday's show made for a very stimulating thtl sing. In a well-established operatic tradition would not have mattered so much; and the ikr fe'rroance would certainly have done greater justice to the merits of the work. As it was, the cheap and labour-saving idea of a dramatised con- cert performance, with the twelve-piece English Opera Group Orchestra and the conductor (Harry Newstone) ensconced on one side of the empty stage and the singers, in modern dress, occupying the other, with nothing in the way of props beyond a bed and a mobile door, seemed in practice a stale and embarrassing piece of gimmickery, and the selfconscious, desperately vigorous antics of the characters in Colin Graham's production as professionally convincing as a rectory drawing- room charade. Yet Mr. Graham has shown that, given reasonable conditions to work in, he can contrive imaginative and effective productions; and his cast, including Forbes Robinson, Kevin Miller, Jacqueline Delman and April Cantelo, was above the average English level of talent and intelligence.

The music of Christopher Sly is eclectic and lacks (I would say after one hearing) a distinctive personal style; some of it is 'wrong-note music,' a dressing in which the dash of vinegar has been added as an afterthought and is not mixed in with the rest. But it has comic pace if not comic invention, fluency, and a slight but genuine lyricism. It does not suggest that Mr. Eastwood is wasting his time in trying to compose operas. But a comparison with the three one-act American operas produced at the Royal Court one Sunday last summer is damaging; it was neither the music of Lukas Foss, Meyer Kupferman and Douglas Moore nor the inherent quality of the English singers involved that made these works enor- mously superior as theatre, as opera, as entertain- ment, but their practised librettos and thoroughly experienced and competent American producer; and this flows directly from the fact that America, where there are now more performances of con- temporary than of 'repertory' operas, is a country with a native opera tradition way ahead of our own.

The stumbling block that lays Christopher Sly in the dust is the libretto by Ronald Duncan, a slick, stuck-up piece of work that is much too full of itself to notice its lack of parts. It is not merely that Mr. Duncan's self-styled modern English is distended with such well-known vernacularisms as 'lascivious lout,' a phrase which sits particularly well on the lips of a chauffeur. The real error of judgment, and an example of the crank-sided state of English libretto-writing—a poor ha'porth of operatic skill for an intolerable deal of literary affectation—is his choice of dramatic model : not Shakespeare's Shrew, which would be much too jejune and obvious, but the pre-Shakespearean text that lies behind it, 'A Pleasant Conceited Historie called The Taming of a Shrew,' in which the character of Sly, instead of being quietly dropped as soon as it has served its dramatic purpose, intrudes continually on the play within a ,play. This is an irritation; and Mr. Duncan has inflamed it by putting coherent and articulate speeches into Sly's mouth, in ignorance of the rudimentary fact that his part in the action is only acceptable and plausible on the assumption that he is brutish and drunk enough to swallow the trick played on him—hence Shakespeare's making him a tinker, instead of the superior Innkeeper' of the Conceited version.

Inept librettos have bedevilled the first fifteen years of our operatic revival. Consider Britten's librettos since Peter Grimes: Mr. Duncan's pom- pous Lucretia, Eric Crozier's fundamentally anti-operatic, wretchedly homespun Herring; even The Turn of the Screw is, with its Yeatsian `ceremony of innocence' and its disastrously self-conscious reminiscence of the gender rhyme in the last scene, not untainted by the cor- rupting touch of the literary gang. English opera must be freed from that contact and joined to a tradition of libretto-writing which has experienced the problems of opera from the inside and can start from that experience; and an opera workshop is the place to achieve it.