When Delius wrote his own libretto in English based on Gottfried Keller's novel Die Leute von Seldwyla he took his title from an obvious resemblance to Shakespeare in the plot. For me there is another poem that keeps suggesting itself, and it is Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott. Changing Tennyson's pronoun from `she' to `they' I get a caption for this review. When I come to the sad outcome aboard the boat in each case I think `Singing, in their song they died'. The intriguing analogy, which may or may not be applicable, would be `The curse is come upon them'.
Sali and Vrenchen, the Swiss family Romeo and Juliet, have prosperous farmers for fathers. Between their farms is a strip of waste land coveted by both. The nearest this tract has to an owner is a vagabond referred to as The Dark Fiddler. He is not a particularly mysterious figure. Everyone knows that he cannot claim the land because he was born out of wedlock, and although he makes reference to his `kingdom' he does not place any kind of gipsy's curse on either the farmers or their offspring, or even seem greatly to lament his loss. He predicts that there will be trouble when all his land has been annexed, but that never actually happens. When both families have been reduced to beggary by a lawsuit over their claims (quite an achievement even for lawyers I must say) the coveted land is still described as `wild'. However there is surely a heavy suggestion of some kind of curse. Two prosperous farmers are first reduced to penury: then their children, head over heels in love, journey to their self-immolation via a run-down inn called The Paradise Garden, where The Dark Fiddler and his fellow vagabonds offer a chance of propertyless vie de boheme to the bewildered lovers, which these children of capitalism cannot take up, seeking oblivion as their only course. I know not what the curse may be.
As my interest in Delius, and my admiration for him, have grown in late years I have started to feel a need to hear some of his more important compositions from other interpreters than just Beecham. I dare say Beecham is still alone and unique, but he has helped me to the view that Delius does not need him as a support any more than Strauss does. Meredith Davies conducted the revival of this work at the Delius Centenary Festival in Bradford in 1962 (whether standing in for the recently deceased Beecham I do not know). This recording dates from 1973, and the large cast is absolutely stellar. Glancing down just the minor parts I see the names Stephen Varcoe, Felicity Palmer, Sarah Walker and Ian Partridge, to mention but a few. There is one real weakness in the casting (not in the cast) and it is in the choice of singers for Sali and Vrenchen as children. Sali is a boy treble, Vrenchen a very grown-up sounding soprano whom I might almost have expected to have educated Sali in grown-up issues without letting 6 years go by. The parts need to be balanced and symmetrical, and the issue is admirably dealt with in Karajan's set of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. Otherwise it would be hard to complain. Just look at the names taking the five main parts, and in particular let me highlight the trumpet-toned Robert Tear as Sali, his thrilling tenor offsetting the predominance of baritone timbres in the other parts.
The recorded sound is not bad at all, if not to 2007 standard. Above all the voices are well captured, including the chorus in the festive scenes. In Delius orchestral tone is obviously important, and what a marvellous orchestrator he is. The 1973 tone is not the last word in refinement perhaps, but the feeling of this composer's mixed palette is conveyed in all essentials, so unlike the linear sound of certain contemporaries such as Stravinsky Mahler and Sibelius. A Village R & J is, to my thinking, a highly successful music drama in which the lessons of Wagner have been well learned and applied. In the first place the libretto itself strikes me as absolutely excellent, and although it is not supplied in full with this set the commentary by Eric Fenby, the amanuensis of the stricken composer in his last ghastly years, goes a very long way, helped by the great clarity of the singers' enunciation.
There is a fascinating filler in which Fenby offers his reflections on the composer he served so devotedly, including his re-enaction of the sessions in which Delius dictated his later music to him. The life-story of the composer could hardly offer a more ironic commentary on the narrative he sets to music here. Delius was destroyed by, in Beecham's arch expression, Aphrodite pandemos: Sali, Vrenchen, Romeo and Juliet were others of her victims in another way, as was Hippolytus in yet a different way, and as are many unsung and unnoticed in ways I shall never know. The pity of their tragedies in life and death becomes their glory in art.