The Queen of Cornwall, Boughton
Joan Rodgers (Iseult of Brittany), Elizabeth Weisberg (Damsel), Heather Shipp (Queen Iseult), Patricia Orr (Brangwain), Peter Wilman (Sir Andret), Jacques Imbrailo (Sir Tristram), Philip Tebb (Watchman), Neal Davies (King Mark), Members of the London Chorus, New London Orchestra, c. Ronald Corp. Dutton Epoch 2CDLX 7256 (two CDs)
When the general opinion was that Wagner had already made a tolerably good opera out of the Tristan and Isolde legend, it might have seemed to rash to try to write another. Rutland Boughton, basking in his greatest success as the composer of The Immortal Hour, evidently thought not. In 1922, inspired by a reading of Thomas Hardy’s The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, he promptly obtained the author’s blessing to turn the play into an opera and, little more than a year later, The Queen of Cornwall was ready for its premiere at the Glastonbury Festival. The work received generally good reviews, enough at least to justify a couple of subsequent productions in the UK and BBC broadcasts in 1935 and 1950, but, like most other English operas of its period, it had disappeared from the stage by the middle of the 20th century.
Is it worth reviving? On disc, certainly yes. Hardy’s plot may lack Wagner’s masterly sense of economy—Sir Tristram has a wife here, Iseult of Brittany, and a complex web of jealousies ensues that even the most efficacious of Brangwain’s potions cannot soothe—but the music successfully holds everything together. Influenced equally by socialist principles and the artistic ideal of Wagnerian music-drama, Boughton had conceived the idea of a new type of English opera—the ‘choral drama’, which was to be performed by singers and instrumentalists working together in a kind of commune, with Glastonbury as its base (hence the trilogy of Arthurian operas that was to follow).
It is probably no accident that the work The Queen of Cornwall most resembles is Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. This is not so much because of the part played by the choir, a sort of Greek chorus intermittently commenting on events, as the very specific tone of the music. Just as Elgar wrote Gerontius after absorbing Parsifal, so Boughton seems to have set to work on The Queen of Cornwall after coming hot-foot from a performance of Die Walküre. The result is a translation of Wagnerian music-drama to English soil, where minstrels strum their simple songs against a landscape of warmly romantic leitmotifs with a distinctly Teutonic hue. What is missing is Wagner’s ability to build his basic motifs into sustained passages of inspiration: Boughton’s passionate and brooding score offers ideas 19 to the dozen, but sometimes less might be more.
This performance is very well cast. Fresh from his success as Billy Budd at Glyndebourne, Jacques Imbrailo sings with an outstanding lyrical beauty that makes Sir Tristram’s ballad-like solos a musical high point, rather than an English apology for Wagnerian grandiloquence. Heather Shipp is excellent as his admirer Iseult, a mezzo in this version of the tale, singing with firm and glowing tone, and both Joan Rodgers as the wife Iseult of Brittany and Neal Davies as King Mark bring vocal distinction to their contrasting scenes. At a couple of points the Members of the London Chorus are hard pressed by Boughton’s more fanciful choral writing, but Ronald Corp galvanizes his New London Orchestra as if genuine Wagnerian honours were at stake. The Queen of Cornwall is a collector’s item for English Wagnerians.