It’s not often there’s an opera premiere in Croydon, particularly not of a lost romantic score by a composer considered to be ‘local’. On Thursday, Surrey Opera unearthed, dusted down, slightly re-worded and presented Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Thelma in the Ashcroft Theatre at the Fairfield Halls. I caught the second of three performances, and found it a bold performance of a musically interesting piece, based around a slightly bonkers plot and saddled with the worst libretto I can recall.
Coleridge-Taylor is, of course, most known for cantatas based around the Hiawatha story. I can recall a school trip to the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, to see the work performed and, given my appalling memory, it must have made some impression if I can recall it now. Anyhow, back in Croydon, there was a bit of buzz about the mounting of the once-thought-lost Thelma. Surrey Opera are certainly to be commended for the efforts involved in this task, particularly given that there were only three performances as a result of (what must have been) considerable work to understand and assimilate an unfamiliar piece. I can only imagine the superhuman efforts involved, above and beyond the work put into a familiar piece like a Rigoletto or Figaro, to prepare everyone for a world premiere such as this. Bravo! one and all.
The cantata composer is in evidence, with the piece being at its most successful in the choral numbers, which rise to assertive climaxes with rhythmic force. Passages of recitative are less distinctive, and solo numbers are variable. Act 1 had a notable aria for Gudrun, the wronged but noble mezzo. All in all, Thelma provides relatively little by way of distinctive characterisation, with some ‘stock’ characterisation. The story is impressive for managing to pull in bits of Zauberflöte (flute; trial), Faust (pact with the devil), Der Ring (Nordic mythological setting), and a supernatural helpmeet that, in its presentation, brought to mind the Fairy Queen from Iolanthe. Otherwise, it is rather daft. The libretto is in rather overblown rhymes which become very wearing very quickly, and Act 2 in particular would have benefited from some tightening: its pacing towards the close of the act kept building to choral climaxes that felt like the end, but which weren’t…
Joanna Weeks’ Thelma grew in vocal strength and distinction as the evening progressed, and she was very effective in her closing aria. As her hero, Eric, Alberto Sousa had a sweet tenor that seemed a bit pushed at points. Håkan Vramsmo projected Carl’s evil in a strong, occasionally thrilling Nordic baritone. His presentation of Carl was certainly virile alongside the slightly stiff Eric. Rhonda Browne’s Gudrun came across well, alternately eavesdropping from behind furniture or ‘being anguished’. King Olaf (Tim Baldwin) delivered well, but wasn’t given much opportunity to deepen the character. As the supernaturals, Oliver Hunt went for a camp Djævelen, Patricia Robertson was the Fairy Queen-ish Trolla with contralto tones, and Stephen Anthony Brown had to try and make something of the Neck-Kœnig (I know, don’t ask, I’ve no idea either…)
The orchestra produced a vivid sound, though occasionally overpowering voices in the relatively small Ashcroft space. One reviewer suggested it had “an almost Dvorak-like charm” in parts; in the intermezzi, I thought I detected a sound-world of Saint-Saens. As a result of the orchestral contribution, I have been tempted to seek out some of Coleridge-Taylor’s instrumental works, even though (like the libretto), it lacks some much-needed musical variety overall and is relatively simplistic when compared to the contemporary works of, for example, Strauss (Elektra (1909), Rosenkavalier (1911)), Puccini (whose La Fanciulla del West premiered in 1910, the year of Thelma‘s completion), or the slightly earlier Debussy. As a first opera though, and considering his early death, I suppose we should box it up with Strauss’s Guntram or Feuersnot, or Wagner’s Die Feen: perhaps problematic in themselves, but glimpses of potential future success, sadly not to be realised in Coleridge-Taylor’s case.
Jonathan Butcher conducted, and kept things moving at a pace. Christopher Cowell (Director), Bridget Kimak (Designer) and Christopher Corner (Lighting) pulled together a stylish single set of neutrals and an aquamarine-lit backdrop, occasionally adding the swirling maelstrom in projection.
I overheard neighbours talking about it being their first opera (it was the sort of evening where you feel like you’re in a minority for not being related to someone in the performance). I did feel an urge to intervene to assure them that opera wasn’t always like this: it is some long way from the dramatic sophistications of Traviata or even Rigoletto and rather reinforces any prejudices that may be out there about the artform. Nonetheless, that is not to detract from what was an important endeavour to bring this piece to the stage, with much to celebrate even if it will not be seen again regularly. And it was very pleasing indeed that this work was accomplished in Croydon by a locally-based group such as Surrey Opera. Bravo for civic musical pride…