“God save us all from goblins!” Thus sings the eponymous baritone at the climactic end of Act 3 of Stanford's opera receiving its first staged performance in many years. Given the composer's Anglo-Irish background, we may have expected the lingering twilight of the Celtic faery world which held composers such as Bax, Holbrooke and Rutland Boughton in thrall. Yet this opera, written in 1916 to an admirably muscular text by Sir Henry Newbolt but mercifully free of quaint 'Olde English', is based on a sombre fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It belongs to a sizeable body of early 20th-century works based on fairy tales, themselves re-working of earlier folk myths. At a time of war and upheaval composers as diverse as Dvořák, Dukas, Humperdinck and Bartók reworked these stories to reflect their multi-layered symbolism and psychic traumas. With the plot hanging on the solving of a riddle posed by a disturbed glacial Princess, it can be seen as a precursor to Puccini's Turandot.

Kate Valentine (Princess) © Robert Knights
Kate Valentine (Princess)
© Robert Knights

The opera could have been a fantastical escape from the contemporary horrors of the Great War but, despite moments of lightness, there is pervasive sense of mortality, given musical substance by a death Leitmotif, and indeed the titular part is in fact dead at the very opening of the opera. The narrative is that of a quest. The young hero John, bereft of family, comes upon two ruffians attempting to despoil a corpse laid out in a chapel and he pays them off with his meagre inheritance.

Setting out on his life's pilgrimage, now accompaned by a shadowy travelling companion and protector, John is goaded by mocking villagers to attempt the task of solving a riddle posed by the Princess, for which the forfeit for failing to answer correctly is decapitation. The Princess, a commanding but disturbed figure, is both perplexed and perplexing, as the question she asks is “Tell me my thought!” which, in her doubting mind, she seems to little know herself. The princess is indeed spellbound by a wizard, a guru-like figure or proto psycho-analyst. In a spectacular scene she invokes him and, after a stormy night ride through the sky, she is drawn to dance at a sort of goblin caelidh. The travelling companion breaks the spell by striking off the wizard's head.

Dancing goblins © Robert Knights
Dancing goblins
© Robert Knights

Despite her urging John, whom she now loves, to withdraw from the trial, he is determined to prove himself and reveals the wizard's head, Death itself, as the answer to the riddle. The now betrothed John and the Princess beg The Travelling Companion to remain, but he must return to whence he came, as the body laid out in the chapel.

Stanford's distinctive score is varied and well-structured, the finale musically numinous in C major, with Wagnerian overtones. Harmonically straightforward, Stanford's mastery of a transparent orchestral palette is apparent in the radiant nocturnal opening to the third act, the subsequent storm and the colourful extended ballet in the wizard's scene. The choral writing, as is to be expected of such a noted church composer, is powerful especially in the repeated chorus “Morning Glory” of a folk-like freshness, but polyphonically textured.

Julien Van Mellaerts (The Travelling Companion) and David Horton (John) © Robert Knights
Julien Van Mellaerts (The Travelling Companion) and David Horton (John)
© Robert Knights

The vocal writing is well-characterised and grateful, and New Sussex Opera is to be praised for assembling such a strong cast. As the Princess, Kate Valentine wielded a powerful glinting soprano with an edge to reflect her predicament. As John, David Horton displayed a bright -toned, eager tenor, just occasionally stretched by some of the more high flying heroic passages. Ian Beadle, as the diabolical wizard, and Felix Kemp as the Herald both exhibited youthfully flexible baritones. Outstanding was Julien Van Maellerts as the Companion, binding the tale together and reflecting the interface between the temporal and magical worlds with his warm and richly focused baritone.

The vigorous chorus suffered a few lapses in ensemble and the men could have done with a few more numbers, but reflecting the World War 1 setting of Paul Higgins' simple but evocative platform staging, there was a nice sense of gender re-balancing in the trouser clad land-girls and the floral aprons of the either elderly or very young men.

Toby Purser led a highly-charged orchestra, perhaps too much so when the orchestra threatened to overwhelm the soloists on a few occasions, but there was much well-characterised playing.

Newbolt's most famous poetic line is “Play up! play up! and play the game!” and the hero John does, in fact, achieve a victory, but together with Stanford's unique musical creation, poet and composer forged an altogether more subtle work, relecting the era in which The Travelling Companion was written.

****1