The music of Bradford-born composer Frederick Delius (1862–1934) is a love or hate affair. Whether you bask in the romantic lushness of his godless and nature-influenced ramblings, or find yourself drowning in a poor-quality school soup consisting of unappetisingly vague harmonic shifts, he is a composer that inspires passionate discussion. Personally, I am of the former camp and find Delius to be one of the most original and imaginative composers of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. Delius disliked his Bradford home and spent much of his life abroad, working in America, hiking in Norway and studying in Leipzig before finally settling at Grez-sur-Loing, around 40 miles south of Paris, where he died blinded and paralyzed by syphilis. The principal influences on his music are foreign and include the improvised songs of Solano Grove plantation workers in Florida, the poetry and philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and nature itself, as we discover in Delius as I Knew Him by his amanuensis Eric Fenby: “In Florida, through sitting and gazing at nature, I gradually learnt the way in which I should eventually find myself...”

New London Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall; photo by Antony Fitz-Harris
New London Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall; photo by Antony Fitz-Harris

Of Delius’ six operas, A Village Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most familiar; it is one of only two recorded more than once (the other being Fennimore and Gerda, 1908–10), and the only one to be made into a DVD. Composed between 1899 and 1901, it was completed at a time when Delius’ musical development was at its most mature and features the ten-minute masterpiece “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” – an intermezzo found before the closing scene. The plot, based on Swiss author Gottfried Keller’s short story Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe is simple and fundamentally the same as Shakespeare’s tragedy: Sali, son of Manz, and Vreli, daughter of Marti, are in love. Manz and Marti are peasant farmers feuding over unclaimed land and, in the heat of their anger, forbid their children to see one another. When grown, the lovers meet secretly; when discovered by Marti, Sali deals him a thump so shocking that Marti is driven insane and dies in an asylum – crazy plot twist, right? The pair run away to the woods and when encouraged to join a band of vagabonds, politely decline, make a suicide pact and drown themselves in a boat – so Peter Grimes wasn’t the first to sink in an English opera.

Tonight’s concert performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall originally seemed to me a fitting tribute to Delius’ 150th birthday. Arriving 105 years after its première in Berlin, the opera has a remarkably small performance history and it would seem that getting this piece right is problematical.

English music enthusiast Ronald Corp assembled an excellent cast of soloists, backed by his own New London Orchestra and The London Chorus. In the first instance, the QEH is an unsuitable environment for singers when backed by the orchestra in full flow: the acoustic is dry and unforgiving, and they have little chance of being heard – my seat was rather near the front and even there the text was inaudible – thus I extend my sympathies for those seated further back. The dramatic flow of the opera is slow and hampered by a tediously verbose English libretto (devised by Delius and his wife Jelka), the latter scenes full of “ha ha ha”s and “la la la”-ing that can also be found to bemusing effect in Delius’ Mass of Life.

The chorus appeared underprepared and poorly balanced, different sections overpowering the other when what Delius calls for is a unanimous blend of voices – their music is not so difficult and consequently the acoustic of the hall cannot entirely be blamed for this oversight. The solo line-up featuring Anna Devin and Joshua Ellicott as the ill-fated lovers was excellent; Ellicott supports a rich, warm tone that suited the young protagonist, though I would have enjoyed a little more theatrical engagement from Miss Devin. Christopher Maltman, Andrew Shore and David Wilson-Johnson as the feuding fathers and eerie Dark Fiddler respectively, gave sterling performances well seasoned in emotion, diction and interpretation – when they could be heard. The orchestra played well, but the strings were without a doubt too few – Delius’ string writing requires a rich, lush approach that cannot be achieved with anything less than symphony orchestra proportions.

Corp and the QEH have given us a glimpse into much-neglected Delius, though I should like to hear the work with a larger orchestra and staged – the upcoming performances in Wexford would be worth the comparison if you can make it, but for those who can’t (including me) I recommend the Meredith Davies recording on EMI.

***11