31 MAY 1957, Page 27

Contemporary Arts

Another English Opera

IN commissioning an opera from John Gardner in 1952 the Sadler's Wells Trust was putting its money on a dark horse. Gardner was then thirty-four years old, and his 'public reputation was founded entirely on a Symphony written some years earlier which had, made a minor hit at the Cheltenham Festival in 1951. Since then he has written a set of orches- tral variations on a theme by Nielsen, played at Cheltenham in the following year, a couple of choral suites, one sacred, for the Three Choirs Festival, and one secular, for Birmingham Uni- versity, and a Piano Concerto, which will be heard for the first time at Cheltenham this year. None of these so far has repeated the success of the Symphony, nor even attracted much attention to the composer, and when the curtain went up on his setting of The Moon and Sixpence last Friday he was still a dark horse, whose main qualifica- tion as an opera composer seemed to be his experi- ence after the war as a coach at Covent Garden.

The application of that experience is plain to see and hear at various levels in his opera—in the design, idiom and orchestration. The librettist, Patrick Terry, has telescoped and occasionally re- cast the action of Maugham's story in three acts of three scenes each, which Gardner has set after the pattern of Wozzeck and Peter Grimes, each act being musically continuous, with dramatically important orchestral interludes linking the scenes. It is a scheme that worked very successfully in those two operas and has done so again in most of Britten's subsequent ones, which seems a good reason for trying it again. And that is just the impression that The Moon and Sixpence gives— 'that Gardner, instead of letting the musical and dramatic form grow out of the action, decided fairly early what musical form he wanted, and then set about fitting the action into it.

Maugham's story admittedly needs some such treatment, since it has no dramatic shape of its own. In other respects too it is excellent raw material for an opera, since there is no inhibiting literary excellence about it that has to be re- spected. There are probably various possible ways of imposing a dramatic shape on it of which the most obvious is to elaborate the character of Strickland and to try to generate some drama by involving him emotionally with the other charac- ters. This is the method that Gardner and his librettist have attempted, but they have failed to go about it thoroughly enough, so that when in Act 2 he allows Blanche to engage him in an emotional scene, and after her death even goes so far as to exchange sympathetic confidences with Stroeve, or in Act 3 becomes sentimental. with Ata when 'Tiare arranges his 'marriage,' the effect is unconvincing and false. The only success.• ful addition is his final scene, in which he thinks himself deserted by Ata, and breaks down in sudden terror—the one moving moment in the opera. As for the additions and elaborations in other directions, in the scenes without Strickland, most of these are mere padding, and contribute nothing useful, let alone essential to the dramatic progress of the opera.

The situation could still have been saved, as it often has been in operas dramatically no better constructed, by some compensatory dramatic and

structural strength in the music. These, alas, were exactly the qualities it lacked. It is all brilliantly clever, technically accomplished and ready-witted —with all the limitations that these 'terms nor- mally imply. Gardner is able to adopt any style and to do anything he likes in music—except any- thing that seems to matter much or is distinctively his own. He often gives the impression even of not taking himself quite seriously as a composer. This not unlikeable characteristic is particularly strong in the Symphony, which has a slight tongue-in- cheek air that in an age of so many deadly earnest and bad symphonies is very attractive. Something of the same quality has persisted in his later works, and here it manifests itself in the perverse frivolity with which the most memorable lyrical phrase in the whole opera, at the end of Act 2, Scene 2, is first assigned to the ludicrous line of dialogue, deliberately taken from Maugham, Tye got other fish to fry,' which echoes with grotesque effect throughout the following orchestral inter- lude and the next scene, in both of which this melodic phrase plays a prominent part.

Elsewhere the music, although on the surface serious and 'even tense, seems to lack the con- viction of a genuinely strong emotional motiva- tion. The general style is a kind of eclectic ex- pressionism, by Berg out of Britten and schooled by Menotti. It is agreeable to the ear and momen- tarily effective. But except for the `fish to fry' phrase scarcely anything in the music remains memorably associated, after one hearing at any rate, with any detail of action or dialogue. Nor does anything that happens in the music give the effect of doing so because musically it had to happen. It flows arbitrarily by with no perceptible formal development or coherence, offering the ear no more than a few straws of continuity to grasp at. This is the most disconcerting thing of all, and we reach the end of the opera without any feeling of having received a musically meaning- ful experience.

As a postscript to these first impressions it may be added that that is what they are, unlike those recorded in most first-night reviews of new operas, which are generally at least second impressions. Not having been admitted to the dress rehearsal, we arrived at the first night vaguely expecting what we thought might result from a combination of Maugham's story with the style of Gardner's earlier music, instead of expecting what we should already have seen at the dress rehearsal—which would have been a much more receptive state of mind to be in. It is difficult to guess what useful purpose was served by the withholding of a customary privilege so helpful and valuable all