Bravo to British Youth Opera for reviving a forgotten work by an unfashionable composer and making it live. English Eccentrics was the second of more than a dozen operas written in different shapes and sizes between the early 1960s and 1980s by the Australian Malcolm Williamson, a figure perhaps sadly best remembered for his inability to fulfil his commissions as Master of the Queen’s Music in his latter years (he died in 2003). His operatic projects ranged widely, from thriller (Our Man in Havana, based on Graham Greene’s novel) and Romantic melodrama (The Violins of Saint-Jacques) to works for children and audience participation. Somewhere in between comes English Eccentrics, an oddity in itself that is more an entertainment or dramatic tableau than an opera in the conventional sense and set to a libretto by Geoffrey Dunn based on a book of the same name by Edith Sitwell, which recounts the stories of real eccentrics in Regency England. It dates from 1964 and was premiered at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival, presumably, given its forces, by Britten’s English Opera Group (the introduction in the programme was somewhat short on facts). Six soloists who between them take on 39 characters, and a chorus of four, are accompanied by a busy ensemble of just seven players (here, members of the Southbank Sinfonia).

Polly Leech (The Countess of Desmond) and Matthew Buswell (Thomas Parr) © Clive Barda
Polly Leech (The Countess of Desmond) and Matthew Buswell (Thomas Parr)
© Clive Barda

If English Eccentrics has a conceptual fault it is in not quite deciding whether it is simply a series of short cameos or wants to push a narrative. Some scenes are completely discrete and are little more than snapshot portraits (the centenarians Thomas Parr and the Countess of Desmond and their urgency to get married; the ‘amateur of fashion’ Robert (Romeo) Coates trying his hand at Shakespeare). Others squeeze in a whole story of their own (the touching tale of Sarah Whitehead and her brother’s dodgy and ultimately fatal ways of her keeping her in luxury), while some characters come and go and interact with their peers. Williamson’s music is heavy on pastiche, from Mozart to Gershwin, and even sets a bit of Romeo and Juliet to a rumba, yet it sounds fresh, sophisticated and inventive in its use of minimal instrumental forces. It can be quite affecting at times, too: both acts end in tragedy, the last with Beau Brummell being carted off to the asylum to the strains of a soothing number not a hundred miles from the conclusion of Bernstein’s Candide (and with a dramatic allusion to the end of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress).

Matthew Buswell (Captain Philip Thicknesse) with chorus © Clive Barda
Matthew Buswell (Captain Philip Thicknesse) with chorus
© Clive Barda

Given the genuinely ensemble nature of British Youth Opera’s cast, it seems unfair to pick out individual singers, but special mention should be made of Iúnó Connolly’s heartfelt Sarah Whitehead and tenor Edward Hughes’ lyrical Beau Brummell, among their many other roles and characterisations. Polly Leech, David Horton, Kieran Rayner and Matthew Buswell made up the rest of this sextet of versatile and vocally adept young singers. In the chorus-like role of commentators and scene-linkers, the solo quartet of Maria McGrann, Siân Griffiths, Steven Swindells and William Thomas worked as a real team, physically and vocally. With all these performers, clarity of diction was astoundingly good and put many of their well-established seniors on the operatic circuit to shame. Conductor Peter Robinson kept everything on a tight leash.

Edward Hughes (Beau Brummell) and Kieran Rayner (Etienne) © Clive Barda
Edward Hughes (Beau Brummell) and Kieran Rayner (Etienne)
© Clive Barda

Director Stuart Barker and his designer colleagues James Cotterill (set) and Laura Jane Stanfield (costumes) staged English Eccentrics with flair. The simple device of a pair of curtains sliding back and forth allowed for sleek scene changes – and there are many of them – and direction of the singers was always purposeful and attuned to text and music.

It often falls to student-level organisations to explore the byways of the operatic repertoire – particularly British repertoire – and British Youth Opera, in its 30th annual season, leads the way. For providing young singers at the start of their careers (most are still undergraduates or post-graduates at conservatoires) with effectively professional stage experience, and us, the audience, with theatrical treats that we don’t often get to see elsewhere, its value is not to be under-estimated.

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