2014 marks the centenary of Rutland Boughton’s record-breaking score, The Immortal Hour. Premièred on 26 August 1914 at the first Glastonbury Festival (which ran from 1914 to 1925), it was performed tonight for the first time since Sadler’s Wells’ production of 1953. In 1922 the opera ran for a staggering 216 consecutive performances, and a further 160 the following year – an accolade unique to The Immortal Hour.

A story of shadows, of magic, of fairies and spirits, of kings, and love, deceit and tragedy, it was once imagined by Boughton as being performed in the spacious outdoors, though tonight his mysterious throng were squeezed into a small room above the Finborough Pub. Five non-descript triangular screens just about shielded the small band from view and were employed throughout the opera in a number of ways as representing woodland hiding places, chairs and the gateway to the fairy kingdom. Bathed in an eerie, alternating green and blue light, the atmosphere was subtly forest-like, but the electrical ambient cracklings of piped-in pre-show noise were profoundly irritating. These noises occasionally made appearances throughout the show also to detrimental effect.

<i>The Immortal Hour</i> at Finborough Theatre © Bethany Wells
The Immortal Hour at Finborough Theatre
© Bethany Wells

The full opera, sung through, takes a little over two hours, and Finborough sacrificed around 25% of the score to spoken dialogue, though, in such cramped and swelteringly airless conditions that practically left the make-up dripping off the singers’ faces, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The orchestration for this production, (consisting of a flute/piccolo (Ruth Whybrow), clarinet (Jay Bevan), cello (Pippa Mason) and directed from an electric keyboard by Inga Davis-Rutter), is a curious and not very satisfying arrangement: in one respect the instrumentation is reduced, and in another expanded; the first performance in 1914 was given with piano accompaniment and, personally, given the restrictions of space and the rather unimaginative arrangement of the score for this set-up, I feel that a piano duet on a proper instrument would have suited the performance much better.

The singing on the whole was mixed; ensemble numbers were poorly balanced, and soloists often seemed inhibited or embarrassed by the proximity and intimacy of artist to audience. This just won’t do – whilst still being aware of artistic sensitivity to text and music, singers must sing out and give it all they’ve got, otherwise you are left with a lacklustre performance and a bewildered audience. The exception to this was Thomas Sutcliffe’s Midir, who sang with a strong, clear confidence that projected his character beautifully. He might have restrained himself a little in the Faery Song “How beautiful they are”, which is more mystery than declamatory, and whenever it appeared as solo or chorus, was taken far too quickly; Boughton’s score needs to breathe, it is full of air and space and timelessness, it is mythic, hypnotic and cannot, must not be rushed. Stiofán O’Doherty’s Dalua was deep, majestic and complemented Michelle Cornelius’ Etain well, though both appear to be stronger actors than singers. Jeff Smyth’s tragic king Eochaidh blossomed when the voice was in full flight, but this didn’t happen very often, and was occasionally a little timid.

<i>The Immortal Hour</i> at Finborough Theatre © Bethany Wells
The Immortal Hour at Finborough Theatre
© Bethany Wells

The music itself is utterly enchanting and, combined with the mythological, magical yet tragic story, it is not difficult to see why those 1920s audiences went again and again. It does however require much larger forces to achieve its full dramatic effect, especially in terms of a chorus where a solo quartet just doesn’t amount to the depth and density of sound provided by a larger body of singers. Consequently, this work would be ideal for English National Opera, Opera North, the Buxton Festival or a Conservatoire performance.

Despite the restrictions of space and staging, the Finborough Theatre and singers are absolutely to be congratulated for resurrecting this score, and allowing us to hear this music live for the first time in over 50 years. 

***11