On the road with pianist Simon Tedeschi, the actor puts the case for resurrecting 19th-century melodrama with music.

One thing I’ve enjoyed throughout my career is performing on stage with live music. There is no buzz like declaiming Shakespeare alongside a symphony orchestra in full cry, or standing in a small space with a group of virtuosi, observing their technique while enjoying the thrill of the woody timbre of the instruments vibrating through your whole body.

I’ve done big gigs with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonic, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra including Peter and the Wolf with Ashkenazy and (when I was very young) The Soldier’s Tale with Robert Helpmann. I’ve had two goes at Walton’s challenging Façade; the first with Stuart Challender, the second with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, when I shared the stage with the delightfully flamboyant Lady Walton.

John BellActor John Bell

Recently I had the pleasure of making a recording for the ABC: the melodrama Enoch Arden, a narrative poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson with a piano score by Richard Strauss. My colleague was the great Simon Tedeschi. We’re taking the show on the road to a limited number of venues. If it proves popular, we’ll do a few more.

Enoch Arden was published in 1864 while Tennyson was Queen Victoria’s Poet Laureate. Strauss wrote his piano score to accompany its recitation in 1897. He probably did it as a favour for his friend Ernst von Possart, a powerful and influential actor who helped Strauss obtain the post of Chief Conductor at the Munich Court Opera. They performed the piece together on numerous occasions and even took it on tour.

Enoch ArdenGeorge Goodwin Kilburne’s Enoch Arden

The combination of poet and pianist in melodrama was a popular one throughout the 19th century. Liszt, Schubert, and Wagner all contributed to the genre. I guess we can also see it at work in the silent movie era, where images on screen were accompanied by a pit pianist (sometimes an orchestra) playing what they considered appropriate atmospheric music.

Tennyson’s story traces the history of three children in a seaside town: Annie Lee (“the prettiest little damsel in the port”), Philip Ray, the miller’s son, and Enoch Arden, a rough sailor lad and orphan. Both boys adore Annie, but she chooses and marries Enoch, leaving Philip heartbroken.

After seven happy years and three children, Enoch goes on a trading voyage to China. He is shipwrecked and lives alone, like Robinson Crusoe, on a desert island for ten years. Meanwhile, Philip cares for Annie and her children and, after a ten-year wait, finally persuades her to marry him, both believing Enoch will never return. But Enoch is rescued by a passing ship. Hearing of Annie’s changed fortunes, he creeps to Philip Ray’s house and spies through the window a picture of domestic bliss; his family grown up and prosperous, a new baby sitting on Philip’s knee.

Enoch makes the agonising decision never to reveal himself and thereby shatter his family’s happiness. After living a lonely and secluded life he finally dies with his secret intact, sad for his own sake but blissfully grateful for the good fortune of Annie, Philip, and the children.

As the name Enoch suggests, the poem is shot through with biblical references and whispers of suffering, sacrifice and redemption, a melancholy version of Odysseus and Penelope. A famous recording of the Strauss was made by Glenn Gould and Claude Rains in 1961 and it has been performed a number of times since.

In 1911 a silent movie version of the story was made by the great DW Griffith and was so popular that he remade it in 1915 with himself in the role of Philip Ray and Lillian Gish as Annie. Later movies found the story a rich source of comedy: 1955 gave us Three for the Show starring Betty Grable and Jack Lemon, in 1946 came Tomorrow is Forever with Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles, and in 1963 Move Over, Darling with Doris Day and James Garner.

Simon and I will bring you what we hope will be the serious version, curious to see if melodrama still retains any purchase today. Of one thing I can assure you: Simon’s performance of Strauss’ expressive and at times exquisite score is good enough reason to have a listen.

Enoch Arden is at Avoca Beach Picture Theatre June 16, Four Winds’ Windsong Series July 2, QPAC July 4, Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room on July 9, Adelaide Festival Centre July 15. The CD is out now on ABC Classics.