Opera Scotland

Fennimore and Gerda

Music
Frederick Delius (born Bradford, 29 January 1862; died Grez-sur-Loing, 10 June 1934)

Text
Composer (in German), translated into English by Philip Heseltine.

Source
Novel Niels Lyhne (1880) by Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885).

Premières
First performance: Frankfurt (Opernhaus), 21 October 1919.
First UK performance: London (Old Town Hall, Hammersmith), 23 May 1968.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 8 September 1983.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.

Background
Composed between 1908 and 1913 Fennimore and Gerda was Delius’s final opera. Its premiere in Germany was delayed by the war, but it was considered a success, though no other production was given in his lifetime. The original novel is distinctly tragic in tone, but Delius chose in his adaptation to end it before the deaths of Niels and Gerda. The opera lasts a mere eighty minutes in a succession of short scenes linked by orchestral interludes. At Edinburgh, the highly romantic staging from St Louis was performed without an interval and featured an excellent performance as Niels by the short-lived American baritone Stephen Dickson.

Main Characters
Fennimore, Claudi’s daughter (soprano)
Niels Lyhne, Claudi’s nephew (baritone)
Erik Refstrup, his cousin (tenor)
Consul Claudi (bass)
Gerda (soprano)

Plot Summary
Niels, a writer, and his cousin Erik are staying with their uncle Claudi. They both love Claudi’s daughter, Niels is very disappointed when she decides to marry Erik. Three years pass, the marriage is unhappy, and Erik’s work is not going well. He invites Niels to stay and they spend time reminiscing. However it becomes clear that Erik has developed a drink problem. Niels and Fennimore become lovers, but a few months later Erik is killed in an accident. Consumed by feelings of guilt, she brings the relationship with Niels to an end. Niels then spends time travelling, and after a further gap of three years, he comes home and meets Gerda. He proposes to her and is accepted

RECORDINGS

CHANDOS (1 CD) Sung in German Recorded 1997

Conductor: Richard Hickox
Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Peter Coleman-Wright (Niels), Randi Stene (Fennimore), Mark Tucker (Erik).

EMI (1 mid-price CD) Sung in English Recorded 1976

Conductor: Meredith Davies
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Brian Rayner Cook (Niels), Elisabeth Söderström (Fennimore), Robert Tear (Erik).

The opera was first set by Delius using his own libretto, which he wrote in German. When he needed a performing version in English, that was prepared by his friend Philip Heseltine (otherwise known as the composer Peter Warlock). The two versions therefore have equal validity, and Heseltine largely avoids the ghastly illiteracies of standard operatic English of the time. The first recording of this strange little opera was made using the English version. The sound quality is clear and warm, and the conductor Meredith Davies succeeds in injecting a degree of drama into the opera. The second version, using the original text, sounds quite wonderful. The orchestration is beautiful, and the singing voices are smoother and richer than on the EMI version, but not as dramatic. Whether those features are positive or negative changes is largely a matter of taste. In the English version the large number of small roles are sung by Danes, with one tiny exception, where Anthony Rolfe Johnson sings a voice across the water. In the newer version some of the same performers appear again. The famous Danish bass Aage Haugland makes an instant impact in the brief role of Fennimore’s father on the Hickox disc.

In the last analysis, both recordings are excellent in their different ways, giving an enjoyable listening experience over slightly less than eighty minutes.

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