Surrey Opera at the Ashcroft Theatre. Croydon, February 11
The years 1907-9 were good ones for opera, with works composed during this time including – just to take pieces by six very different composers – The Legend of the City of Kitezh, A Village Romeo and Juliet, Fortunio, Elektra, Erwartung and Il segreto di Susanna. And then there was Thelma: where to place the only opera of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, left unperformed at the time of his premature death in l9l2 and now premièred finally as part of Croydon's year-long festival commemorating the centenary of its once famous musical son?
- The première of Coleridge-Taylor 'Thelma' in Croydon, with (l. to r.) Rhonda Browne
(Gudrun), Alberto Sousa (Eric), Joanna Weeks (Thelma) and Håkan Vramsmo (Carl)
Dubbed the ‘African Mahler’ in his day (by players of the New York Philharmonic, who must have known what they were talking about) and celebrated above all for Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, Coleridge-Taylor was a highly-regarded composer, but most of his work has now passed into oblivion. Placing him today is tricky, since his attractive music has not always dated well, yet it holds a respectable enough place next to much else written in England during this period. If Thelma sounds tame in comparison with Elgar's masterpieces of the time or with what Holst was soon to compose. it was still worth the huge undertaking of Surrey Opera's landmark production.
As Surrey Opera's music director Jonathan Butcher suggested in these pages (February, pp. 142-6), Thelma was crippled chiefly by the Edwardian doggerel of its libretto, thought to he the work of Coleridge-Taylor himself, though tinkering by the score's editor, Stephen Anthony Brown, and the production's director, Christopher Cowell, helped to disguise that, It may also have been bad timing on Coleridge-Taylor's part to write Thelma just as Nordic subjects were going out of fashion (the torrid plot, in which Christian redemption triumphs over Viking paganism. invokes such elements as an undersea kingdom, a magic amulet, a whirlpool's vortex and a pinch of snuff, and involves sea sprites, an elfin guardian and a character called King of the Necks); had the half-Sierra Leonean composer instead explored the sort of African themes on which he was touching elsewhere in his music, the resulting opera might have faced obstacles a century ago but might also have been rescued sooner.
In light of Elgar's encouragement of Coleridge-Taylor, it is perhaps surprising not to hear any Elgarian influences in the work, though maybe the subject matter itself reflects Elgar's early cantata, King Olaf. But Dvořák (in Spectre's Bride mode) and even Rimsky-Korsakov (especially in the undersea scene, suggestive of Sadko) left their mark on the score, which received a robust performance in Croydon under Butcher's baton.
Cowell's production was sensibly straightforward and kept the action (even the amateur chorus) moving in Bridget Kimak's naturalistic designs, and her stage – dominated by a wintry, bent-back tree like something out of a Segantini painting, and a giant, upturned helmet – suggested a rocky shore. Joanna Weeks gave a committed account of the title role; the rivals for Thelma's hand were sung by Alberto Sousa as Eric (whose clear, clean tenor was the best voice of the evening) and Håkan Vramsmo as Carl, and there was solid support from Rhonda Browne (Gudrun. Thelma's companion), Oliver Hunt (the evil, snuff-pushing Djaevelen) and Tim Baldwin (King Olaf). A good standard has been set for further productions, with the Pegasus Opera Company due to follow in the autumn.