Glyndebourne is cementing its reputation of late not only as the opera house which has put its money where its mouth is in terms of reaching a wide audience, but as a centre which links the music of the past and present, the works of the great classical composers with those of the new generation. Hot on the heels of the marvellous Imago, premiered in March and surely destined to join the mainstream repertoire, comes a little jewel of a work by Glyndebourne’s Young Composer in Residence, Luke Styles. Luke has had works performed at Sydney Opera House and at Covent Garden, and he has been working with Vladimir Jurowski at Glyndebourne.
Vanity had its first performance in the evocative setting of the Organ Room on May 19th, just before that afternoon’s Falstaff – appropriately, since Luke’s work is a setting of four Shakespeare sonnets. Jeremy Bines, the house’s Chorus master, conducted the tenor Stuart Jackson, the bass-baritone James Platt, the violinist Matthew Truscott and a small chorus made up of twelve sopranos and mezzos from the full opera chorus; in fact the work initially arose from discussions about how to give them prominence whilst the rest of the chorus were engaged on Billy Budd.
It’s an ambitious undertaking to set these sonnets, and not one which all that many have tried; they are amongst the greatest poems ever written, and it is a measure of this young man’s talent as a composer that not only did he enable us to view them in a new light, but he did so in music of the deepest respect and love, never once trivializing or attempting to ‘modernise’ the complex emotions which they contain. He takes the view that they reflect the vanity of men – and coming from a young male composer, that’s pretty daring stuff. The music is rich, dense in texture, eminently ‘singable’ and structured around the drama inherent in each poem. In ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ the first quatrain is given to the bass-baritone, and the second to the tenor, with the answering quatrain and couplet sung as a duet – appropriately, since those last lines are Shakespeare’s assertion that whatever else may fade, his love will live on in his poems.
‘When my love swears that she is made of truth’ was perhaps the most dramatically set, with tenor and soprano voices alternating with full chorus and achingly beautiful violin ‘reply.’ As well as fine performances by the male soloists, there were some great individual voices from the chorus, with Angharad Morgan and Pamela Wilcock especially striking. This is a work which could well be performed by small chamber groups, and it’s of a perfect length to complement many of the great vocal works of Britten and other composers. However, its main distinction is that it sets great writing to music of appropriate eloquence.
Vanity can be heard again on May 24th and 26th, as before preceding performances of Falstaff.