A Tale of Januarie: Operatic irrelevance

2 Mar


Julian Philips’s new opera, The Tale of Januarie, which I saw at the Guildhall on 1st March is undoubtedly the first opera with a libretto allegedly in Middle English.  Before getting into the merits of the piece and the performance, I think it’s worth asking some questions about that.

Let me quote from the programme: the opera constitutes the Guildhall School’s contribution to the [Arts & Humanities Research Council funded…] programme’s translingual strand which seeks to promote Opera in a contemporary cultural context, generating dialogue and debate around the form within the school’s existing and well-established audience community.  With its Middle English libretto, the project hopes to heighten audience sensitivity to language in opera, whilst also allowing for a sharing of aesthetic practice both within the context of Guildhall composition programmes but also in its strategic partnership with the Royal Opera House…”  This is the sort of mixture of pretentious pseudo-academic speak and corporate jargon that instantly raises my hackles.  Is that really what opera has descended to these days: a vehicle for academic discussion?

Earlier on, the authors talk as if comprehending the words in opera has always been a problem.  I think that needs to be debunked.  There are some operas which were written for audiences who would not understand the language (Handel’s and some of Mozart’s spring to mind) but most composers wrote operas where the words were meant to be heard and understood.  And listening to recordings, combined with recollection and, indeed, the experience of The Winter’s Tale two days ago, suggests that it is very possible to do so.  While undoubtedly some people think that opera “sounds better” in a language they don’t understand, what are you hoping to achieve, if you think that the story is at all important, by setting the piece explicitly in a language that makes it less comprehensible?

I know that surtitles are universal but doesn’t it admit defeat from the start to write something which is intended to be witty, where the laughs depend on an audience reading the surtitles?

In any case, the experience here was strange.  The Middle English certainly wasn’t pronounced the way I was taught to pronounce it: it sounded like an uneasy mixture of 21st century vowels, with some unfamiliar words and formations.  Middle English-lite, I’d say.  What sort of contribution to the debate do you make if you write in a language and then encourage people to mispronounce it?

Oh dear, maybe I’ve just been contributing to an academic debate.  Better get on with the opera itself.

The plot is a good one about an elderly knight who marries a much younger woman and is cuckolded by his servant: good scope for comic scenes and, as happened, a rather touching ending.   Philips and his librettist Stephen Plaice add bits of local colour, choruses about the seasons and gods (Pluto and Proserpine) commenting on and providing something of a counter-point to the story.  It reminds me slightly of the part played by the chorus in Gloriana or the ballets in an opera by Rameau and it feels consciously archaic.  The episodes also go on far too long: one in particular where Proserpine’s nymphs tease Priapus (a sort of bawdy narrator figure) made me lose the will to live.  It’s not an especially long opera, but I felt that the local colour elements held things up and took time away from greater elaboration on the characters themselves.  The presentation felt about relevant and interesting as Merrie England.

And opportunities seemed to be missed.  Couldn’t you broaden out the opportunities for exploring the Damyan/May relationship?  For saying more about the Damyan/May relationship.  And there’s an episode where Damyan has problems with a key where the poor guy has nothing to sing at all and the mugging has to come entirely from the direction with no musical or verbal assistance at all.

Philips’s music adds to the archaisms by including medieval bagpipes, recorders and nods towards Machaut and other sort-of contemporary composers. Juxtaposed with an orchestra of sixty and a gently late 20th century easy idiom.  It’s all inoffensive and pleasant enough to listen to but with anything that stops you in your tracks or makes you come out with music lodged in your mind.

There are some effective moments: the love making of Januarie and May is quite amusing in a vulgar, carry-on sort of way.  The last scene with the dead Januarie is quite touching and there’s some grateful music to sing.  Philips’s music is confident and accomplished with nothing to stop you in the tracks or lodge in your mind.

It was done outstandingly.  Dominic Wheeler conducted clearly and the orchestra played superbly.  The chorus were excellent and the singing uniformly good.  Everyone has pointed out John Findon’s commanding performance as Januarie – and he’s very good indeed and makes a convincing old man.  His tenor is strong – ideal for Britten, I would say.  There is some lovely singing from Joanna Marie Skillet as May, Elizabeth Skinner as Proserpine (both displaying gorgeous creamy voices), Dominic Sedgwick (a bit wasted) as Damyan, the love interest and Martin Haessler as Pluto.  These were superbly committed performances.

Martin Lloyd Evans’s production was set firmly in a medieval never, never land while Dick Bird’s sets and costumes created a Breughel-ish picture that had been very firmly dry-cleaned.  The direction was sound enough without ever making the work feel exciting or interesting.

So it made a pleasant enough, unchallenging, unmemorable evening.  I don’t think I’ve ever though opera so irrelevant.  This is what happens when academics get hold of it.


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