Opera Scotland

Mines of Sulphur

Music
Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (born Broadstairs, 29 March 1936; died New York, 24 December 2012).

Text
Beverley Cross.

Source
Play Scarlet Ribbons by Beverley Cross.

Premieres
First performance: London (Sadler’s Wells Theatre), 24 February 1965.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Alhambra Theatre), 9 April 1965.
Scottish Opera premiere: N/A.

Background
The second of Bennett’s operas, The Mines of Sulphur was an immediate success at its Sadler’s Wells premiere. Colin Graham’s staging was revived several times, toured nationally and abroad, and survived the company’s move to the Coliseum. It featured in the opening season of Opera North in Leeds. The opera was also staged widely abroad, including La Scala. Recent productions have taken place at Glimmerglass (2004) and Wexford (2008). The work was dedicated to Benjamin Britten and shows Bennett to have a similar talent for dramatic composition, influenced by Berg, Stravinsky, Henze and others, but with great individual character. It clearly works as a highly operatic piece of music theatre, which may be a ghost story, with an unusual situation and plot, and several good roles for singers.

Main Characters
Braxton, a landowner (bass-baritone)
Rosalind, a gypsy (mezzo-soprano)
Boconnion, a deserter (tenor)
Tovey, a tramp (baritone)
Sherrin, a manager (bass-baritone)
Leda, an actress (mezzo-soprano)
Fenney, an actor (tenor)
Tooley, an actor (baritone)
Jenny, an actress (soprano)
Trim, a mute (silent)

Plot Summary
In the 18th century West Country, Rosalind, trying to escape from her master, Braxton, is driven back by the winter weather. She admits two friends, Boconnion and Tovey, and Boconnion murders Braxton. The trio are enjoying life in Braxton’s manor house when they are interrupted by the arrival of a troupe of touring actors, also seeking shelter. Boconnion lets them in on condition that they perform a play, and Sherrin chooses to perform The Mines of Sulphur. The plot of this comedy involves a young wife having an affair with her elderly husband’s valet. When they plot to kill the old man, Rosalind and Tovey interrupt the performance which is too close to real life. When an actor reveals that he knows Boconnion’s identity, the deserter locks the actors in a cellar and plans to burn the building down to conceal his crimes. However the actors manage to escape, leaving Jenny behind. She is kissed by Boconnion, to provoke Rosalind, but then reveals that she and the other actors are suffering from plague. Boconnion and his friends are doomed.

RECORDINGS

CHANDOS (2 CDs) Sung in English. Recorded 2004

Conductor: Stewart Robertson
Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra
Brandon Jovanovich (Boconnion), James Maddalena (Tovey), Beth Clayton (Rosalind), Kristopher Irmiter (Braxton & Sherrin), Dorothy Byrne (Leda), Brian Anderson (Fenney), Michael Todd Simpson (Tooley), Caroline Worra (Jenny).

It is a sad fact of modern operatic life that only one of Bennett’s eminently stageworthy operas should have been performed regularly, and even that one should take forty years to achieve a recording. Perhaps a tape of the original cast recording may one day be made available. Conducted by Colin Davis, it featured a number of Scottish Opera favourites in the cast, including Gregory Dempsey, David Hillman, Catherine Wilson, Ann Howard, and Harold Blackburn. Bennett's later 1970 Covent Garden commission, based on the novel Victory by Joseph Conrad, also provided excellent roles for Donald McIntyre, Anne Howells, Inia Te Wiata, and others.

It is perhaps ironic that this recent recording should be made with American forces, but as the composer lived in New York for over thirty years, it is perhaps appropriate. The performance of this production from the Glimmerglass Festival is excellent in every way. The slight tinkering with the score (with Bennett’s approval) to reduce it from three acts to two was not universally liked in the theatre, but works well on disc. The excellent conductor, both at Glimmerglass and Wexford, was the expatriate Scot, Stewart Robertson. Of the singers, the only one to have appeared in Scotland is James Maddalena, who created the title role in Nixon in China, and sang it at the 1988 Edinburgh Festival. Brandon Jovanovich, recently successful in London and Glyndebourne, is excellent in the leading dramatic role of the deserter Boconnion. The clarity of diction by all the singers is a notable feature – no doubt also in part due to cunning orchestration and excellent conducting.

The Cast

Boconnion
 a deserter
Braxton
 a landowner
Fenney
 an actor (Hugo in the play)
Jenny
 an actress (Haidee in the play)
Leda
 an actress (Mrs Traxel in the play)
Rosalind
 Braxton's servant, a gipsy
Sherrin
 an actor (the Count in the play)
Tooley
 an actor (first Flunkey in the play)
Tovey
 a tramp, once a seaman
Trim
 a mute (second Flunkey in the play)

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