British opera before Britten still struggles to make headway on the main UK stages. The best of Delius’ six operas, A Village Romeo and Juliet, hasn’t to my knowledge been staged by a national company since Sadler’s Wells put it on in 1962, though it has appeared at several theatres in Germany within the last five years – the opera’s basis on a Swiss short story by Gottfried Keller that is relatively familiar to Teutonic audiences, together with its lush, post-Wagnerian language probably account for this skewed reception. Although written to an English libretto by the composer himself, it was premiered in Berlin in 1907 in his wife, Jelka’s German version. Here in the UK, as so often, it is left to the enterprising semi-professional operatic circuit to keep such works alive, and this latest resurrection comes thanks to New Sussex Opera, which has garnered a well-deserved reputation for its adventurous exploration of some of the byways of operatic repertoire, and which appeared at Cadogan Hall for the London leg of its brief southeast England tour.

Ian Beadle (The Dark Fiddler) © Robert Knights
Ian Beadle (The Dark Fiddler)
© Robert Knights

Compromises are inevitable at this scale of enterprise, and the downside here was the decision to perform Delius’ opera in a pared-down instrumentation of 24 as opposed to the score’s original 110. The conductor (and, one infers from his introduction in the programme, the arranger) Lee Reynolds argues for the chamber-scale nature of much of the drama, in which two children from rival farming families pursue their burgeoning love with tragic results, but Delius’ writing feels bigger than that and for all the élan in the Kantanti Ensemble’s playing one longed for a full orchestral string section, at the very least, to do justice to the music’s soaring lines, especially in the climactic “Walk to the Paradise Garden” interlude.

Kirsty Taylor-Stokes (Vreli) and Luke Sinclair (Sali) © Robert Knights
Kirsty Taylor-Stokes (Vreli) and Luke Sinclair (Sali)
© Robert Knights

One further compromise one has to make with the opera is Delius’ fault: his text sounds exceedingly dated to modern ears and while a more serviceable revision was made of the libretto for the Sadler’s Wells production, Reynolds and his stage director Susannah Waters have attempted their own adaptations yet without really, to these ears at least, avoiding many lines sounding stilted and prosaic. It’s the kind of English one can’t help thinking would sound better sung in a foreign translation and reinterpreted back through more eloquent English surtitles. In any case, it’s a libretto that needs help from the director, and while there were many admirable things about Waters’ approach, its execution could have been a lot sharper. As it is, Delius’ strange mixture of a kind of German verismo with Wagnerian metaphysics – Tiefland meets Tristan und Isolde – would have benefited from a more focused projection of character and interaction from the young principals, especially in the portrayal of the mysterious Dark Fiddler, whose interventions in the story Reynolds and Waters have shunted around a little from their place in the original score. Anna Driftmier’s modular set proved versatile, if fussy – the scene changes with their assembling and dismantling of various wooden architectural shapes and planks were the stuff of Ikean nightmares.

Geoffrey Moses (Marti) and Kirsty Taylor-Stokes (Vreli) © Robert Knights
Geoffrey Moses (Marti) and Kirsty Taylor-Stokes (Vreli)
© Robert Knights

Yet the trio of young principal singers somehow transcended these limitations to give musically satisfying performances. Luke Sinclair and Kirsty Taylor-Stokes were an ardent pair of star-crossed lovers, Sali and Vrenchen, and despite the hazy direction Ian Beadle as the Dark Fiddler rightly dominated the scenes in which he appeared. Robert Gildon and Geoffrey Moses both gave solid accounts of the two rival fathers, Manz and Marti and as the bargemen in the final scene, and Alex Edwards and Nell Parry made a good impression in their portrayals of the young Sali and Vrenchen in the first scene. The amateur NSO Chorus sang firmly in the wedding dream scene and in the scene at the fair, where it also furnished a host of cameo roles as vendors and punters. As for Delius’ music – yes, it can sound over-rhapsodic at first and the dramaturgy is certainly unusual in its pacing, but even here it hinted at the emotionally overwhelming effect it can have when given the resources it undoubtedly deserves.