by Sam Juliano
No other romance in the culture has been depicted on stage or screen more often that of the star crossed lovers in Shakespeare’s 1591 Romeo and Juliet. The Bard’s play, which probably vies as his most popular with his later masterpiece Hamlet, was in turn based on the Italian verse tale The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562 and retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1567. At least 27 operas have been based on Romeo and Juliet. The earliest, Romeo und Julie in 1776, a singspiel by Georg Benda, omits much of the action and most of its characters, and concludes on a happy note. The most celebrated is Gounod’s 1867 Romeo et Juliette, a French work with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michael Carre that was an unqualified critical hit when it first opened, and is still frequently revived today, even at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera and other world famous houses. Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto work I Capuleti e i Montecchi is also revived on occasion, but has been unfavorably assessed by some because of its perceived liberties with Shakespeare. The charge isn’t altogether fair, as Bellini and his librettist Felice Romani worked mostly from Italian sources. Hector Berlioz’ towering “symphonie dramatique” Romeo et Juliette, a choral and orchestral work in three parts for mixed voices, and Tchaikovsky’s ravishing Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet, featuring one of classical music’s most beautiful melodies (the “love theme”) are other notable compositions that adapt Shakespeare.
The eternal fascination with these characters has spilled over into musical theatre, jazz and ballet, with the most famous by far West Side Story with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Made into the famed 1961 film version that won ten Academy Awards, it is one of the most popular works of the twentieth-century in any form. The stage work and subsequent film of Rogers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific and the films Sayonara and Elvira Madigan are thematically connected as well. One of the most popular and performed ballets is Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, written in 1935. It is speculated by many that Romeo and Juliet is the most filmed play of all time (Franco Zeffirelli’s sublime 1968 version for varying reasons is the most famous) and even the word “Romeo” is synonymous with male lover in the culture.
The English composer Frederick Delius, who was a subject of a superb BBC series directed by Ken Russell, spent a few years of his early life in America managing an orange plantation in Florida, where he became enthralled with African-American music, and soon moved back to Europe and settled in Paris after a period of musical study in Germany. The lyricism in Delius’ early compositions reflected both the music he has learned in America and the influences of European composers such as Edvard Grieg and Richard Wagner. As his skills matured he developed a personal style, characterized by his individual orchestration and his uses of chromatic harmony.
Delius went on to compose six operas, and, given his travels, it’s not surprising that they display a wide range of subject matter. One, called Koanga, was inspired by an African-American slave song. Another, The Magic Fountain, represents the Native American culture of Florida. However, his 1901 A Village Romeo and Juliet is the only one of this half-dozen to endure. While it has not held the stage consistently it has been performed occasionally to appreciative reception from critics and audiences. When it first appeared it was one of a brace of works from iconic composers to explore the tragic Shakespearean theme of suicide by young lovers to release at around the same time. Others debuting included Claude Debussy’s rapturous Pelleas et Melisande and Schonberg’s Gurrelieder, but the musical antecedent to these and Delius’ opera that dealt with the theme of lovers preferring death a Liebestod – to life in a world where obstacles are insurmountable is Wagner’s magisterial Tristan und Isolde, a musical equivalent of the Bard’s Romeo in Juliet in the force of its tragedy and emotional power.
The Gothic tone of this updating of Shakespeare is due in part to Delius’ association with Scandinavian composers like Grieg, who were significant in his musical development, and to that region’s literary figures and artists, of whom Strindberg and Munch are especially prominent. Delius was also a noted disciple of Frederick Nietsche, though more for his poetry than for his philosophy. One of the composer’s most magnificent compositions, the English choral work A Mass of Light is indebted to Nietsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Delius refined some of the underlying ideas to enhance the concept of living in joy, which was an extension of much of his earlier output that reveled in the glory of nature. As an avid walker throughout his life Delius was inspired by walking tours and mountain solitude, and he imparted a tonal magic to his works, including A Village Romeo and Juliet. This includes an unusual 40 minute duration of orchestral music, of which the extended lyrical passage in Scene Three when the enigmatic Fiddler offers to show the children the wonders of the world, and the overwhelmingly beautiful Paradise Garden sequence are most special. The latter interlude in fact is one of my own favorite compositions in all of classical music, and it is undoubtedly both the highlight of A Village Romeo and Juliet and one of Delius’ most ravishing creations. Delius, like his fellow countryman Ralph Vaughn Williams and the American Aaron Copland is often categorized as a pastoral composer, which is a term used for the type of music being created – that which conveys a oneness with nature.
Based on a story titled Romeo and Juliet of the Village by the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller, the opera tells the story of two young lovers whose peasant families are locked in a feud over land. Hot headed Sali deals Vreli’s father a thought-to-be fatal blow during a row, sending both lovers off to form a suicide pact, willfully choosing their fate and then acting upon their decision pulling the plug on a barge as it floats down a river at the work’s conclusion. This plot point has always convinced some that the work should not be compared to Romeo and Juliet, since the latter’s tragedy was predicated on a mistake and inopportune timing, but the matter of fervent romantic trumping all and the offspring of warring families makes the close kinship of these works obvious enough. The lovers Sali and Vrenchen, are to be sure, afforded an opportunity to free themselves of the legacy of their families’ hatred by the cryptic Black Fiddler, who appears both demonic and benevolent at turns. He tempts the innocent couple to withdraw from society and live freely, unmarried but blissful in the mountains. To be sure he serves as an instrument of potential salvation, but one that comes at a price. Keller’s novella has long been appreciated for its searing psychological preoccupation and its own unique combination of realism with a fairy tale atmosphere, and this are no doubt qualities that attracted Delius to write an opera of it, employing the pastoral qualities and music he has so extraordinarily refined over previous years. The whole matter of the transience of life and love set in and around an outdoor paradise is no doubt what appealed most to Delius in transcribing Keller, who in turn was obviously inspired by Shakespeare. The English libretto for A Village Romeo and Juliet was prepared by Delius himself; a German translation was then written by his wife, painter Jelka Rosen. In any case, Delius stripped away as much as feasible of the family feud in order to distract as little as possible from the central romance, and in the end bared down to its simplest incarnation the composer’s fascination lied with the young lovers’ passion and their sense of not belonging in the world.
A Village Romeo and Juliet greatly appealed to Czechoslovakian opera director Peter Weigel, who, in 1989 brought cinematic life to an opera that inherently would always fare better with natural locations. Hence the unaffected beauty of the mountains, greenery and meadows is given a rich and colorful tapestry by cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera, filming in Switzerland, who well understood that setting was particularly vital to this opera film. But he also realized that close-ups in a story of young love also assist mightily in the visual scheme – as Franco Zeffirelli did eleven years earlier in his swooning version of Romeo and Juliet, when the devise was used craftily to heighten the work’s emotional power. Weigl also understood the importance in featuring good-looking lovers, though the price in this instance required the used of dubbed voices both to offer up physically attractive lovers, and to maintain the correct language the opera – English. The result is that actors Michael Dloughy and Dana Maravkova are voiced by Arthur Davies and Helen Field. The combination works well, with the actual performances effective enough (yes, there are some critics who thought them bland, but to me that assessment is way too harsh) and the voice work outstanding. Still, there is nobody in the film to match noted opera baritone Thomas Hampson, whose singing and dramatic performance as The Dark Fiddler alone brings this opera film into the big leagues. Hampson’s rich and expressive voice is perfect for the oddly alluring character, whose claim to the disputed land is the key matter in the plot, and his long solo near the end is surely one of the film’s highlights. Less effective, but not significantly so, are the two voices employed by Samuel Linay and Pamela Mildenhall for the child actors Jan Kalous and Katerina Svobodova.
The aforementioned centerpiece of this pastoral tragedy is “The Walk to the Paradise Garden”, negotiated superbly by conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, who many regard as the finest Delius interpreter. His handling of this sublime passage, guiding the Orf Symphony Orchestra, provides a full and specious sound, which exhibits a real sympathy for Delius’ musical vision. This stand alone passage is the cornerstone of a work fashioned in the form of Wagnerian orchestration, yet tinged with the sensory appeal of Debussy’s coloring, and it feels like a perfect fit for pastoral tragedy complete with Shakespearean passions. Yet, “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” was not written directly for the opera, but was added by the composer five years later, almost as an after thought. Critics and audiences today are mostly in agreement that “Paradise Garden” A Mass of Light and Sea Drift are the greatest compositions Delius ever wrote. It’s a conviction I’d have a difficult time countering, not that I would care to.
The most definitive positive appraisal of A Village Romeo of Juliet as an operatic work was given by no less an authority than Professor Arthur Hutchings, author of an authoritative book on the composer titled Delius: A Critical Biography, when he practically admonishes the listener: “Opera-goers who require the stage properties and dramatic interruptions of Italian opera, the pageantry and ballet of Russian opera, the discrimination of character and emotional versatility of Mozartian opera, cannot fail to be disappointed in A Village Romeo and Juliet. No opera is more musical, because in no opera has the composer been more certain that by music he would tell the tale.” Another distinguished scribe, Cecil Gray declared in full musical accord: “A Village Romeo and Juliet is a symphonic poem with the implicit programme made explicit upon the stage. In this work the opera goer must expect only music, and music chiefly of the same kind – sustained, dreamy beauty, slightly off-set by the sinister strains of the Dark Fiddler or the litigious quarrels of the farmers.”
A Village Romeo and Juliet may well be Weigl’s finest opera film, and the best presentation we’ve yet achieved of this sadly underrated opera. To be sure there is all too scant a representation of the composer’s operatic output in general with only this opera and his Koanga in the CD catalog . The latter is only available at prohibitive out-of-print prices. Delius’ musical sensibilities seem perfectly attuned to Weigl’s long-standing attention to setting and on location lensing. Of all the composers Weigle has adapted, Delius seems the most perfect fit, and his A Village Romeo and Juliet, with a spirited orchestra weds a sublime visual tapestry with aural resplendence. This is a work that will take your breath away.
Note: The Decca DVD of ‘A Village Romeo and Juliet’ offers up vivid yellow English subtitles that for some will help to clarify the sometimes difficult to follow English text, especially those with less exposure to opera.