Frederick Delius completed his most successful opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet, in 1901, but its Dutch premiere had to wait until last Saturday, when Sir Mark Elder conducted it in concert at the Concertgebouw. Together with a convincing cast, he presented the work in the best possible light. The opera is replete with lyrical orchestral description, its one hit being an intermezzo, "The Walk to the Paradise Garden". But neither the libretto – by Delius and his wife Jelka Rosen – nor the score manage to sustain any dramatic tension. Delius is like a novelist who depicts the surroundings of his characters in elaborate detail but forgets to bring them to life. The mostly forgettable vocal writing woefully lags behind the gorgeous instrumental evocations.

Sir Mark Elder © Russell Hart
Sir Mark Elder
© Russell Hart

The Romeo and Juliet of the title are from Gottfried Keller’s collection of stories set in a fictitious Swiss village, The People of Seldwyla. Childhood friends Sali and Vreli fall in love as teenagers, but a bitter family feud over a piece of land makes their relationship impossible. When Sali knocks down Vreli’s father, consigning him to a mental institution, their fate is sealed. As penniless social outcasts, they can’t be together within their community and they are too respectable to join a group of freethinking vagabonds, so they drown themselves in a sinking boat.

The opera owes more than a little to Wagner, and not just because, like Tristan and Isolde, the lovers spend a "Liebesnacht", a night of love, together and are forever united in death in a "liebestod". Strands of Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal emerge intermittently from Delius’ thick orchestral tapestry. There is, however, no Wagnerian drive in his painterly harmonies, which, barring a few slips in the prelude, were splendidly unfurled by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. Insofar as he was able to, Elder built up the drama gradually across the six scenes, saving the most ecstatic crescendi for the second half. In an opera that is basically a series of alpine idylls interrupted by two short violent outbursts, this was no mean feat. The two episodes, with a musical character distinct from the rest, follow each other too closely to affect the overall homogeneity. In Sali and Vreli’s shared wedding dream, a sombre march gives way to a hymn, beautifully intoned backstage by the Netherlands Radio Choir, and then a joyous Gloria with pealing bells. In the next scene the lovers visit a village fair: folksy choruses and a five-piece circus banda capture the market bustle. The clown paraphernalia, including one red nose donned by the fine banda players, was a fun touch. 

Like the musicians, the singers lavished attention on their performances. Rik de Jong and Lotte Cornel charmingly sang Sali and Vreli as children. Marti, Vreli’s father, had the benefit of Callum Thorpe’s round bass, and sparks flew when baritone Tim Kuypers was onstage, making the most of his rival Manz. Matthew Newlin sang sweetly as Sali, but his tenor was a size too small to contend with Delius’ mammoth orchestra. Newlin came into his own in the final duet, when the orchestral density opens up to let the voices through. In an uber-romantic white dress strewn with pink roses, soprano Marina Costa-Jackson was a passionate Vreli and deserved every decibel of her ovation. Vreli has one semi-memorable tune, the plangent farewell to her childhood home "Ah, the night is approaching". It is too short and doesn’t develop into a big moment, which is a shame, because Costa-Jackson’s instrument was created for big moments. It’s a duskily glinting spinto with a killer high C, tailor-made for verismo roles.

The opera’s most striking figure is the Dark Fiddler – not least because he is outlined by graceful violin solos, here played with wistful warmth by concertmaster Elisabeth Perry. The mysterious roamer, who appears at key moments in the couple’s life, is the real heir to the disputed land, but his illegitimate birth prevents him from claiming it. Baritone David Stout lent him an arresting vocal presence, fleshing out his prophecies and narration with solicitous charm and gloating schadenfreude.

It speaks to the current healthy state of Dutch opera that the rest of the cast consisted of home-grown talent and singers from the Dutch National Opera young artists programme. The minor characters don’t have it easy, being mostly indistinguishable within the din of the fair or deluged by the glittering orchestral waterfall in the Paradise Garden Inn septet. Yet the various vendors, vagabonds and villagers were all portrayed ably and avidly. Raoul Steffani, Martin Mkhize and Lucas van Lierop formed a resonant, haunting trio of bargemen lulling the lovers to their death. Although even such an eloquent performance couldn’t transform Delius’s score into a proper tragic opera, there is much to be said for spending an afternoon gently suspended in a ravishing idyll.

***11