Composers:Sir Charles Villiers Stanford
Compositions: The Travelling Companion
Performers: Soloists, New Sussex Opera/Toby Purser
Catalogue Number: SOMM SOMM2742 (2CD)
Apparently a hex has lain, from the outset, on Stanford’s last opera. Completed in 1916 to a libretto by Sir Henry Newbolt, The Travelling Companion remained unstaged at the composer’s 1924 demise. Only now has it been recorded (while his dozen other operas – even Shamus O’Brien, once remarkably popular from Dublin to Wroclaw – still await complete recordings).
To some degree, the work’s neglect is understandable. Its storyline of a lethally man-hating princess eventually overcome by love’s power suggests Puccini’s final masterpiece, likewise posthumously premiered. Surpassing even Turandot’s own misandry, Stanford’s princess preserves her unsuccessful suitors’ skeletons. So hideous a reminder of mass extermination would hardly have endeared itself to 1920s Britain, after the corpse-factory of 1914-1918. (The protagonist’s line “O heart of youth, that will not count the cost!” acquires in retrospect a terrible resonance.)
Nowhere does the musical argument fall below a high level of charm and resourcefulness. Some of it is downright wonderful: the Act I prelude – reworking material that Stanford had originally written for prelude but afterwards arranged, much more effectively, for organ – and the ballet scenes from Act III all deserve separate lives in orchestral concerts. Yet there are no detachable arias or ensembles. In structural terms Stanford imitated his cherished Wagner, although harmonically the two clearest influences are younger masters for whom he had no love: Massenet and Humperdinck. Two virtues repeatedly impress: the orchestration’s dashing Mendelssohnian brilliance, and the extraordinarily dexterous word-setting, which should long ago have buried the vulgar lie that no composer between Purcell and Britten knew how to treat English verse.
The regional opera orchestra here, though rough sometimes, copes admirably in general. Best of all, every single soloist and chorine demonstrates first-rate diction (and Newbolt’s text really is worth hearing). As the Everyman figure John, tenor David Horton has an appropriate Gerontius-like heft, while Kate Valentine’s vocal charisma conveys the Princess’s allure. Only Julien Van Mellaerts in the title role slightly disappoints: he would be a first-rate Kurwenal where the music appears to imply a King Marke. Balance between stage and pit is mostly good. Toby Purser conducts everything with obvious love. Until the final applause the audience remains blessedly quiet. At least one reviewer found himself moist-eyed at the concluding bars. The hex is broken.