Stanford’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Leeds Opera Festival

Charles Villiers Stanford was a redoubtable figure in the Victorian and Edwardian musical establishment. He wrote ten operas. Little is heard of them today, so all credit to the Northern Opera Group for offering a fully staged performance of Much Ado About Nothing at its renamed Leeds Opera Festival.

Was the piece worth reviving? Well, Shakespeare’s play, with its mixture of comedy, romanticism and dark skulduggery might have seemed a suitable vehicle for the composer to display his talents in various musical idioms. And indeed, when soaring lyrical arias and duets are called for they come gushing out with uninhibited fervour. As the scene changes suddenly to humorous interplay, Stanford’s accompaniment shifts to a regime of short wily phrases and flippant chords. Then when dastardly behaviour leads to the blighting of an innocent life, the aural environment given by the woodwind is one of dark and desolate motifs. Taken individually each of these sequences is effective in reflecting the text, but some doubt can be expressed as to whether they satisfactorily cohere; they seem not to be a part of any overarching sense of the nature of the work. This problem is, I think, partly a consequence of Stanford and his librettist Julian Sturgis trying to cram too much of the original play into the smaller framework necessary for a musical adaptation, the disparate scenes following breathlessly one after another. But it may also be a consequence of Shakespeare’s fondness for juxtaposing high drama with comedy. In the straight theatre the contrast and tension between the two moods work brilliantly; with music, they are less easily managed.

It has to be admitted, too, that by placing the Claudio-Hero blighted relationship so prominently at the centre of the piece and relegating that of Benedick and Beatrice to an ancillary function, the opera adopts a decidedly Victorian interpretation of the play, concentrating on the injustice of wrongly suspected sullying of innocence. This misses out on a key dimension of the drama: the revelation that a relationship (Claudio-Hero) emerging rapidly from superficial attraction may be fragile, compared to one (Benedick-Beatrice) which builds more slowly out of initial scepticism but eventual mutual respect. The Benedick-Beatrice banter, with its psychological implications, is difficult to realise in musical terms and Stanford’s focus on the more typical operatic material of the wronged woman is therefore understandable. In any event, had not Gounod done something similar with Goethe’s Faust?

Whatever the merits of Stanford’s Much Ado, the performance of the Northern Opera Group was enjoyable and highly successful. Conductor Christopher Pelly communicated an affection for the score which was obviously shared by his orchestra which played with enthusiasm and energy. And the cast of young singers excelled themselves. Roger Paterson has a robust but also pleasing tenor and he made much of Claudio’s lyrical outpourings. He was well matched by the Hero of Charlotte Hoather, notwithstanding an inevitable temptation to over-sentimentalise the part. Dramatically Catrin Woodruff added depth to the character of Beatrice and carried this through with the colour and tone she brought to the vocal line. If Phil Wilcox’s Benedick was less subtle, that perhaps lies in the role and his was a lively and forceful impersonation. Jake Muffett offered a sonorous, moving Leonato and there were strong contributions from Thomas D. Hopkinson and William Branston as the villains Don John and Borachio.