I heard about the world premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s opera on Twitter and it seemed like a good idea to support the effort of a local opera group. The saga of the opera in the last 100 years is possibly more intricate than the nordic mythology in the heart of the plot. Tom Service wrote an article on it, so I won’t bore you on it here, check out the link at the bottom for his article. Also the plot can be found on Surrey Opera’s website, by clicking on the link provided below.
Now how was Thelma? The stand out feature of the first few minutes was all the Nordic sounding brass dominating the soundscape but the characteristic that becomes all too apparent is the drab libretto with truly leaden prose, stuck in a world of forced rhyming. (Have a look below for some selected clangers.) It makes the first act a bit too reminiscent of a farce or at worst a panto. My heart went out particularly to Rhonda Browne (Gudrun) who had some of the worst lines imaginable while lamenting the lost love of Eric.
It is very difficult to take seriously some of the awful text and it did take a whole act for me to circumnavigate the iceberg in the room. The musical idiom is late Romantic, mellifluous, gliding strings punctuated with harp, percussion and omni-present brass. The orchestration throughout was fluid with enough variation to hold interest but unfortunately the first act was not inventive enough and the action did not quite get things moving swiftly. The standout highlight was the aria for Trolla, which was sang with great conviction and style by Patricia Robertson. Despite that, there were a lot of stiff smiles at first interval…with oh Thelma written on people’s faces.
The second act which was taking place at the seashore before the sea trial for the two men was much more interesting, helped by much faster recitativi. The chorale in the end of act 2 about belief was the highlight alongside Thelma’s own aria. They showed a much more mature musical world and in a more dramatic idiom. The token evil spirit of the story Djaevelen, portrayed charmingly by Oliver Hunt (a member of the excellent Stile Antico) was a fun addition and with his appearance under a red spotlight gave almost a visual reference to a warming catering hotplate. His singing was bright and surely had fun with his entries and exits, sometimes climbing the set or others on all fours going under it! Maybe that was something that Coleridge-Taylor did not foresee, an element of humour to lift the story. The libretto and the music are both too self-consciously serious to allow for much lightness to creep.
The third act was much more dynamic as the first scene was taking place in the undersea kingdom, while the second one was the wedding of Thelma and Carl. The undersea world was evoked by suspending what seemed like a tree prop in the first two acts into an upside down position making feel like the roots of a plant growing in water. The back projected screen with images of flowing water and remaining a bright azure was a good negotiation of the difficulty of staging this scene. The music as well took a more crystalline clarity which aided the atmosphere and once more Trolla’s and the choir’s singing kept momentum going. Unfortunately Alberto Sousa’s portrayal of Eric was for me the low point of the evening, delivering any high-lying parts of his role with bulging eyes, showed a level of strain one would not expect. That sheer pushed nature of his delivery made most of his acting out of sorts with the rest of the cast. The scene depicting Thelma’s marriage was beautifully done and with some very thoughtful directorial touches. As the scene progresses from happiness for the smooth outcome of love, to a tragedy after the accidental stabbing of Gudrun. The nuptial bouquets held by the chorus ended up becoming the adornments for her dead body. This last scene brought together the final act and almost made us forget some of the longueurs of the piece as a whole. And judging from the enthusiastic applause and the panto boos for Djaevelen the audience had a good time overall.
Surrey Opera did a great job at bringing to the stage the work in its most complete form. But can’t imagine it will have a reason to become a repertoire work without any major reworking. Coleridge-Taylor’s capability to write memorable melodies and a huge capacity to mass voices for dramatic effect is undeniable. But the sheer length of Thelma and owing to the thin ,edging on infuriating, libretto make it an unsatisfying overall night at the theatre. It is an interesting historical curio from the career of a wonderful young composer whose life was cut too short. I am glad to have seen it and hope to encounter again some of the choral parts of it and a couple of the arias in the future.
The greatest advice to come out of this staging would be ‘kids do not put your priceless amulet around your sword‘
Some selected rhyme clangers from the libretto
bright/delight – ear/near – depart/heart – used/refused – dust/gust – fire/desire – fear/dear – pain/again – balm/calm – disdain/rain – tomb/doom
Some tweets from the evening: