HOLST At the Boar's Head
Both of these one-act operas remain on the fringes of the repertoire, so any new performance or recording is worthy of note, and particularly when prepared with such obvious care and affection as here, in concert performances from the 2016 Beethoven Festival in Warsaw. And they are very much concert performances. One only has to compare this reading of Holst’s At the Boar’s Head with the EMI recording under David Atherton to discern the difference. The latter, while a studio recording, bursts with theatricality from the very outset with Bardolph and Peto Gadshill’s drunken banter. In this concert version, the effect is more formal and stilted, which is perhaps a by-product of Polish singers negotiating Shakespearean blank verse, but nevertheless creates the feeling of a cantata-like experience rather than an operatic one.
What makes this recording invaluable is Jonathan Lemalu’s Falstaff. Articulate, charmingly churlish and aptly stentorian, it is such a vivid characterisation that it’s a pity he’s not supported with a stronger cast. Eric Barry’s Prince Hal comes across as whiny and petulant, no match for Philip Langridge’s smiling, sweet-toned portrayal for EMI. Likewise, Kathleen Reveille’s Doll Tearsheet lacks the aged yet still potent sexuality so richly conveyed by Felicity Palmer.
Reveille is better suited to the long-suffering Maurya in Vaughan Williams’s grim yet lyrical drama. Her reedy mezzo-soprano, with its pronounced beat, can be disconcerting, though there’s no denying her emotional commitment and musicianship. Here, though, it’s the supporting roles that impress. Nicole Percifield and Evanna Chiew are beautifully matched as Maurya’s daughters, their voices entwined in elegiac resignation. And as the lone surviving son, Bartley, Gary Griffiths expresses youthful confidence with tragic verisimilitude.
Conductor Łukasz Borowicz is more at home in Vaughan Williams’s intensely lyrical score than in the ribald humour of the Holst, though his orchestra play superbly in both works. The recording favours the voices but provides a reasonably natural perspective with no discernible audience noise, except for applause at the end of the Holst.