Magazine article The Spectator

Resigned Despair

Magazine article The Spectator

Resigned Despair

Article excerpt

Riders to the Sea


Ascanio in Alba

King's Place

Vaughan Williams's short opera Riders to the Sea was to have been conducted by Richard Hickox, but in the sad event it was played as a tribute to him, and conducted by Edward Gardner.

It had a kind of appropriateness, but my own abiding memory of Hickox will be his wonderful, inspired conducting of the same composer's The Pilgrim's Progress at Sadler's Wells a few months ago, which was revelatory for many of us. This setting of Synge's grim little play is austere to a degree, but not as austere as it became at ENO. I came home rather bored by it, unlike, it seems, anyone else, and listened to the Meredith Davies recording of it, which is fiercely dramatic. At ENO it was performed almost as pure ritual, while the recording gives much more the impression that I think Vaughan Williams intended, which was something between ritual and naturalistic drama. The language of the play, which irritates me, though perhaps it shouldn't, is full of Oirishry, all of it being in the mode 'And it's destroyed he'll be going till dark night, and he after eating nothing since the sun went up.' Accents at the Coliseum were, as with their American musicals, a matter of beginning a sentence with the best intentions and then slipping after a few words; on the recording there is no attempt to sound Irish, and that is preferable, and also bolsters the naturalistic effect of the work.

What I found missing at ENO was any abandonment to the grief which is at the centre of the piece. Everyone sounded resigned, so that the death of Bartley, the last of Maurya's sons, became something that had to happen in order to confirm the inspissated gloom, rather than something dreaded that, coming to pass, leads Maurya to her state of equivocal acceptance, in which the element of bitterness, undoubtedly present, is hard to estimate. Fiona Shaw's production, less obtrusive than I dreaded, was some kind of amalgam of the play's ingredients, but not quite the right one. The atmosphere was of a 1950s English movie set in the grim north, with exhausted housewives forever wiping their hands on their aprons, and carrying on with their ordinary lives miserably. With that ambience, Williams's unobtrusive music, played with excessive restraint, seemed a mere reinforcement, the moments of intense fury and even illumination hardly to be heard. When I think of D.H. Lawrence's great play The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, which is closely comparable in key ways to Synge's, its effect is far greater, though no one has written any music for it -- nor need they. …

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