Sir Edward German’s patriotic light opera, Merrie England, first performed at the Savoy in 1902 while tears for the late Queen Victoria were barely dry, might almost be a tribute to her and to Gilbert and Sullivan whose work so influenced the Shropshire composer.
I find it hard to resist the thought that the widowed Victoria was as much in German’s mind as her great virgin predecessor when he composed the powerful contralto climax to act one, "Oh Peaceful England".
Be that as it may, this latest revival by Opera South is a timely call to companies throughout the land to remember this neglected piece of tuneful jingoism in Diamond Jubilee Year.
With guest conductor William Godfree, for several years anchorman of the southeast children's concerts, at the rostrum, the production is directed by Lynn Binstock who has worked with companies in Seattle and Freiburg as well as with some of the major houses in England and Scotland.
Most of the talented soloists are drawn from music colleges and universities, many of them already breaking into the ranks of national opera companies and concert platforms.
Merrie England suffers from a proliferation of characters embracing English history and folklore and, while this production seeks to correct this, the flaw goes with the theme.
Yet the work remains a great credit to Edward German as one of the most tuneful, singable, foot-tapping works England has produced, and the busy score represents a considerable challenge to the slim-line ranks of the excellent chamber orchestra.
There is of course a great flavour of the Savoy Operas right from the opening May Day chorus redolent of “list and learn" from The Gondoliers, The May Queen splendidly sung here by soprano Lisa Swayne whose descants are a feature of her performance.
Mezzo soprano Samantha Houston gives a pleasing performance of Jill as a Caribbean immigrant and the Yorkshire soprano Myvanwy Bentall is excellent as Bessie Throckmorton with a lovely flair for coloratura. Her rendering of “who shall say that love is cruel” is particularly fine.
There is a strong performance as Wilkins from baritone John Savouring showing a nice touch of comedy. Bass-baritone Richard Immerglück is a strong Essex and there is a splendid performance of the paean to the English Rose from tenor Adam Kowalczyk as Raleigh.
In the ‘thirties and forties, Merrie England fell from favour with only the occasional amateur production. However, around Coronation Year there were some 500 productions around the country.
And my frequent complaints at the dearth of good, honest contraltos has been assuaged by the lovely performance of Angela Simkin as Elizabeth I.
A tribute, too, to the excellent chorous—fine in all departments but notable for the quality of the male voices which are especially appreciated in the famous baritone hymn to “The Yeomen of England”.
That and Elizabeth’s own tour de force we may expect to hear on several occasions as one of the delights of the forthcoming Jubilee celebrations.