The year 2008, of course, marked the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s death but, while larks have probably ascended in most of the UK’s concert halls, few companies have ventured toward the unknown regions of the composer’s operatic output. No sign at all of his once-popular ballad opera Hugh the Drover, but his one-act tragedy Riders to the Sea has had three outings, courtesy of the Brighton and Buxton festivals and ENO (which flirted with Sir John in Love not so long ago); his magnum opus, The Pilgrim’s Progress, was given two semi-stagings by Richard Hickox and the Philharmonia in June, and, nothing daunted by its famed difficulties, plucky little New Sussex Opera bravely took up the gauntlet - or rather, rashly grasped the nettle - of The Poisoned Kiss, that late-1920s ‘romantic extravaganza’ of whose merits Vaughan Williams himself was so dubious that he didn’t even dare show the score to his friend Hoist and which he then spent much of the next 30 years trying to revise.
NSO used the fourth and final version of 1956-7, with the new spoken dialogue provided by the composer’s wife, Ursula, further revised by NSO’s director of productions, Michael Moxham. There were three performances: the first and last in Worthing and Lewes, the middle one (reviewed here) in the Floral Hall at Eastbourne’s Winter Garden - a venue that offered both the best acoustics and the most apt setting, since the libretto whimsically names all the principal characters after varieties of plant.
The piece attempts to tread a precarious line between Viennese operetta and West End musical comedy, albeit scored with the orchestral richness, and occasionally also the dramatic ambition, of grand opera. Yet while Vaughan Williams’s idiom was surely intrinsically too well-upholstered and tight-waistcoated to carry off such would-be comic turns as the rather flat-footed tango for the three Mediums that opens Act 3 (no hint there of any lessons with Ravel), the score is frustratingly full of enough wonderful passages in his pastoral, poignant and visionary veins to make NSO’s attempted resurrection seem worthwhile.
Michael Moxham used the overture to show us Tormentilla growing from infancy to womanhood on her diet of poison (shades of the ROH Ring, on which he assisted Keith Warner), and thereafter kept the potentially convoluted storytelling as clear as possible within what was obviously a tight budget. But the Kent Sinfonia responded generously to Nicholas Jenkins’s characteristically expansive direction, not least in the many deftly etched orchestral solos, and there was no stinting on the casting. While Ian Caddy and Margaret Preece (as Dipsacus and Persicaria) relished the Gigi-esque nostalgia of their Act 3 reunion, and Anna Dennis and Nicholas Sharratt (Tormentilla and Amaryllus) got to share the opera’s most purely lyrical duet, ‘Blue larkspur in a garden’, it was perhaps Louise Innes and James McOran-Campbell (as the servant pair, Angelica and Gallanthus) who most fully realized the work’s tricky mix of comedy and pathos, pastiche and true emotion.
In his ‘Master Musicians’ biography of Vaughan Williams, James Day concluded that ‘no amount of revision, cutting or trimming seems capable of salvaging The Poisoned Kiss as a viable stage piece’. I can’t say that NSO quite succeeded in proving him wrong, but at least, unlike many better-resourced rivals, they tried.
Mark Pappenheim - Opera
Two neglected operas in as many days is a rare treat, and the delights of The Poisoned Kiss fully justified the journey involved.
The unashamedly romantic fairy story, with every character in the opera ending up paired off to live in happy-ever-after wedded bliss is played to the accompaniment of some of Vaughan Williams most enjoyable and seductive tunes. The duet Blue larkspur in a garden is justly well known and fully lives up to the promise of its own words to “bring continual delight”. There are also numerous examples of Vaughan Williams mastery as a writer of choral music and New Sussex Opera’s strong chorus of more than thirty voices took full advantage.
Altogether this was a lively performance. Michael Moxham’s direction was intelligently suited to the limitations of what was essentially a concert platform, with his cast entering happily into the spirit of enchantment. Nicholas Jenkins conducted with authority and though from the front stalls the balance between singers and the large orchestra was not always ideal, with a few words getting lost on the way, the thread of the action was always maintained. The principals were all exemplary and the afternoon passed by all too quickly.
Serena Fenwick - Musical Pointers
"The best operatic production I have ever seen"
"A truly brilliant performance - wonderful singing, playing and excellent acting."
"The singing was magnificent, and the whole thing a delight from beginning to end. We would have liked to have stood and cheered at the finale, but were constrained by our English reserve!"
- some audience reactions