Opera Scotland

Golden Legend 2016University of St Andrews G&S Society

Read more about the opera Golden Legend

Performances of Sullivan's cantata have been rare since it faded from popularity between the wars. How enterprising then of St Andrews University G & S Society to revive it. It is a large-scale piece, demanding a big orchestra, which may be one reason for the scarcity of performances. For this enterprise a new arrangement was commissioned from James Green and Lauren Macleod for 10-piece brass band, organ and percussion.

The performance was well suited to the spacious acoustic of the beautiful mediaeval Holy Trinity Church. The new organ part sounded quite demanding, but Sean Heath, one of the University's Organ Scholars, coped very well. There were only a few occasions when the lower brass instruments' oompahs became too dominant. By and large the conductor, Gillian Craig, succeeded in achieving a fine balance.

The team of soloists was familiar from their work when they were all students at St Andrews, and it was interesting to hear how their abilities have developed. They were led by Ben McAteer, currently one of Scottish Opera's Emerging Artists. His trenchantly powerful baritone is coming on nicely, and he gave a highly distinguished performance of Lucifer, launching the evening from the pulpit (shock, horror) before joining the other soloists at the front of the band. Caroline Taylor gave a sweetly expressive performance as Elsie. 'The night is calm', her aria sung on the road to Salerno, is one of the highlights of the score and she delivered it beautifully.

Laurie Slavin's performance as Henry also shone in that scene, and he sang with great lyrical beauty in what is a surprisingly demanding part. Emma Rettie may not have had the full-bodied contralto tones that Sullivan probably had in mind for Ursula - nobody does nowadays - but she also came over strongly in a less interesting role. As with all the soloists, every word was beautifully clear. Peter Sutton also made an effective appearance with the Forester's few phrases.

It remains to consider the effectiveness of the piece itself. It contains much beautiful music, and this brass band arrangement may make it more accessible for performers, though Sullivan's full orchestration has many superb moments that should also be heard more often. Surely we should also get to hear other choral works by Sullivan, as well as oratorios and cantatas by the likes of Costa, Cowen or Mackenzie, if only so that we can see how Elgar's works developed from them.

While The Golden Legend is a cantata, and was never intended to be an opera, it has to be said that there are structural defects that reduce its effectiveness. Joseph Bennett's filleting of Longfellow no doubt did what the composer wanted, and it has to be remembered that audiences in 1886 will have been largely familiar with the original Longfellow verse. The lack of continuity in the plotting would hardly have worried them as it might us now.

On this occasion an excellent solution was reached. The Very Rev Ian Bradley, one of today's leading experts on G & S, and a local resident, was singing in the chorus, so able to provide a linking narrative between the various scenes to help audience understanding. Certainly the audience enjoyed what was clearly a highly worthwhile exercise.

Performance Cast

Lucifer

Ben McAteer

Prince Henry of Hoheneck

Laurie Slavin

Ursula wife of Gottlieb

Emma Rettie

Elsie daughter of Ursula

Caroline Taylor

Forester

Peter Sutton

Performance DatesGolden Legend 2016

Map List

Holy Trinity Church, St Andrews | St Andrews

13 Feb, 19.00

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