O my! America!
Concert Hall, Dome
Leonard Bernstein: Overture to Candide
Aaron Copland: Four Dance from Rodeo
William Walton: Christopher Columbus
Roger Allam (actor), Susan Bickley (mezzo), Evan Bowers (tenor), William Dazeley (baritone), James Lance (actor), Greta Scacchi (Queen Isabella), Michael York (Christopher Columbus)
Carl Davis (conductor), Patrick Garland (director)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Brighton Festival Chorus
The first half of this programme, part of the Brighton Festival, played ingenious variations on the novelty in the second half that was the main point of the programme. Leonard Bernstein, whose father came from Rovno Gubernya, wrote a European, formally polished overture to Candide that is still the essence of Broadway pizzazz, while the body of the work is an unblinking satire, set partly in post-Columbus Spain and central America, on the alleged Enlightenment that made the United States what it is. Aaron Copland, also of Russian-Jewish descent and trained in Paris, invented the western movie sound-track (whose first great exponent was the Russian Dmitri Tiomkin) in Billy the Kid and Rodeo. Carl Davis, the silent-movie score specialist, directed the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in rather rough-and-ready performances that put entertainment and energy over musical detail. But it was good fun and no one was really complaining.
William Walton's and Louis MacNeice's Christopher Columbus was commissioned nominally to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage in 1492 and actually to celebrate the United States entering the war on the Allies' side at the end of 1941. Originally a radio play, mainly in verse and generally quasi-Shakespearean with low-life, included songs and meaningful motifs, it must have been a bit like a late seventeenth-century English opera without the stage machinery. Patrick Garland's version fillets most of the unaccompanied speech to leave a sort of melodrama cantata that gets most of the plot but somehow leaves the big ideas exposed and shivering.
But then it is a very strange work: it was presumably about Columbus because the United States claimed him as a founding hero. But it is set in Spain, neutral but fascist during the second world war, at a time when it was expelling its Jewish population. MacNeice presents Columbus as a Christian enthusiast who claims, apparently without authorial irony, that his name means "dove" and so the holy spirit, although it is almost certainly cognate with "colonist" in the ancient sense, a farmer sent by the state to work on appropriated land. There is stuff about Columbus returning to Europe to bring new hope that obvious translates handily into the idea of the United States returning to its European roots to help out in the war. But there is no hint of the nasty shock in store for the laid back natives who assume that the visiting white gods from the east will leave and not return. In short, the play's ideas as well as its form are decidedly old-fashioned.
Walton's music, too, seems synthetic though it is always ingenious and attractive. It has a lot in common with his score for the movie Henry V, which followed the next year: there is Korngoldish film melodrama and Vaughan Williams churchiness, as well as the more predictable Spanish-Arabic melismas and seafaring choruses. An unaccompanied modal song for mezzo as the ships depart would be at least as home in the Appalachians as in Spain. But it was all material Davis could get his teeth into, and he and the orchestra took it seriously.
The actors had a more difficult time of it. Michael York as Columbus was relentlessly butch, rather lacking the demonic edge that Laurence Olivier must have brought to the original performance. (There was perhaps a reception problem here: York's camp film romp Logan's Run -- Star Trek meets Metropolis -- had been on telly during the day.) Greta Scacchi didn't have much to do as Queen Isabella except be regal, while Roger Allam had a lot of minor roles to distinguish to provide a skeletal plot.
The Brighton Festival Chorus seemed to be having fun in their straightforward sounding music. Evan Bowers was sweet as a pseudo-Wagnerian tenor sailor, while William Dazeley was seriously wasted as a baritone Caribbean equivalent. Susan Bickley, standing in at very short notice for Sarah Connolly, got the best of the vocal music, a set of mournful "Spanish" ballads that evoke the war-torn state of Spain and the anxiety of those left behind by Columbus' expedition, and made them very moving.