I want to set a prizefight to music was the statement that led to the composition of Vaughan Williams much-overlooked opera, Hugh the Drover. It is strange, then, that something so aggressive could lead to an opera so charming. The plot is a simple love story, set in a Cotswolds village during the Napoleonic wars, and the music is accordingly uncomplicated simple interwoven English folk-song melodies set above complex but interesting tonalities.
New Sussex Opera is currently touring an engaging and intimate production of this underperformed masterpiece, taking it to a variety of institutions from theatres to concert halls. To accommodate this wide range of venues, designer Yann Seabras set is relatively simple, with all the scene changes manipulated smoothly by chorus members, and this matches Vaughan Williams folk-song style, and is also beautifully complemented by Giulia Scrimieris charming costume designs.
Director Michael Moxham overcame the daunting task of creating a production that works well in these different settings, and his interpretation maintained its visual and dramatic interest throughout the performance. Highlights included a superbly choreographed fight scene between Hugh the Drover and John the Butcher, and an excitingly tense portrayal of Marys efforts to free Hugh from the stocks.
Soprano Celeste Lazarenko as Mary, the country girl who longs for freedom and adventure, was a complete delight. Her silvery, light soprano, combined with a gentle confidence on stage, matched her characters demeanour perfectly. Marys desire for liberation was particularly eloquent during the second act, where her lines are set against exquisite violin solos, so reminiscent of The Lark Ascending (composed around the same time), underpinned by dark harmonies that serve to heighten the sense of unattainable freedom.
In the title role, Daniel Norman gave an entirely convincing and unforced performance as the handsome yet unassuming Hugh. He produced a confident and focused sound throughout his range, with some passionate top notes, and his sensitive and heartfelt arias were exceptionally moving. The chemistry between Norman and Lazarenko was electric; their voices blended exquisitely during their duet, Lord of my life and they both produced beautifully tender phrasing during their love scenes.
Another very strong performance came from Clarissa Meek as Aunt Jane, whose rich warm mezzo-soprano and calm confidence on stage both lent themselves admirably to her extremely touching aria in the first act, where she explains the joys of domesticity to Mary. Simon Thorpe made a confident and imposing John the Butcher, his deep baritone colouring his characters aggressive nature. Some of the comic highlights of the evening came in the form of a fantastic double-act between William Robert Allenby as the Constable and Gareth John as the Turnkey, with Johns ringing tenor providing a fitting contrast to Allenbys solid baritone.
Strongest amongst the principals was baritone Grant Doyle, who performed both the Showman in the first act and the Sergeant in the second act. His resonant baritone (the only voice that could always be heard above the orchestra) worked well in both roles, with some sizzling top notes lending excitement to the role. This, coupled with excellent diction, made him truly captivating throughout the performance. Whilst he made a solid and confident Sergeant, it was in the first act as the Showman that he really excelled himself. Dressed as Napoleon Bonaparte, complete with an oversized hat and flamboyant purple cravat, he performed the Showmans francophobic aria with terrific burlesque energy and panache, commanding the stage and projecting genuine enjoyment.
For a company that considers its amateurs to be at its heart, it was a shame that New Sussex Opera made so little of its expert and unpaid 32-strong chorus. Hidden behind the orchestra, the chorus performed with great energy, but too little attention was paid to blend, tuning and diction and a lot of their dramatic efforts were lost behind the band simply because it was too difficult to see them. Chorus members also took some of the smaller leads; unfortunately, they sounded all too amateur next to the professional principals, although they performed with confidence and verve.
The small NSO orchestra was present on stage behind the action, and although the balance was good within the ensemble, it repeatedly overpowered the chorus and occasionally the principals as well. However, under Nicholas Jenkins energetic direction, the band played with feeling and vivacity, with a particularly impressive performance from percussionist Oliver Lowe, whose dramatic snare-drum crescendo to announce the entrance of the soldiers added a tense anticipation to the action on stage.
This was a very moving and musically intelligent production of a vastly underappreciated opera, which just goes to show what can be achieved on a shoestring budget by a pro-am opera company. Whilst it has its shortcomings, overall this was a touching, heart-warming and intensely enjoyable performance, full of feeling. Highly recommended.
Further details of Cadogan Hall concerts can be found at cadoganhall.com