Hugh the Drover Over the Pub

The Rocky element may seem the least likely, but in fact Hugh
the Drover
grew out of Vaughan Williams’s wish “to set a prize
fight to music.” One possibility he considered was an opera based on
George Borrow’s strange, atmospheric Bildungsroman,
Lavengro (1851), which contains what used to be one of the most famous
fights in English literature. Such an opera may have had the dramatic
profundity to establish a place in the English repertoire, but unfortunately it
was never written. Instead, Vaughan Williams set a rather trite libretto by
Harold Child (1869-1945), a writer and theatre critic with no previous
experience of writing librettos. Child arranged a story (suggested in good part
by the composer) in which there is a prize fight between love rivals. There is
evidence that Vaughan Williams was unhappy with Child’s unrealistic
rendering of country life, and his thoughts about his librettist’s
talents are succinctly revealed in his immediate conversion to the idea of
Literaturoper (his next opera, Sir John in Love, takes a
libretto directly from Shakespeare no less). In 1942 he pointedly omitted
Hugh from a list of his operas with “good libretti.”

Nevertheless, Child’s libretto is not quite the hopeless thing it is
sometimes represented as. It tells a simple story of love-at-first-sight set in
a Cotswold market town (inspired by Northleach, Gloucestershire) at the time of
the Napoleonic wars. Mary, daughter of the village constable, is being pressed
into an unwilling marriage with the wealthy but brutal John the butcher. When
Hugh the drover appears and offers her the chance to escape to a life of
heavily romanticised wandering she unhesitatingly declares a willingness to
become his bride. Immediately afterwards John offers to fight anyone for twenty
pounds, Hugh takes him on, says he is fighting for Mary, and in proper Rocky
fashion comes from behind to win triumphantly. But then John denounces Hugh as
a French spy, the villagers turn on him (a slight pre-echo of Peter
), and he is placed in the stocks. Mary is loyal to her man, and
when his innocence is proved they set off almost immediately to follow the
droving life together. The main idea may have come from J. M. Synge’s
first play, In the Shadow of the Glen (1903), where an unnamed tramp
persuades an unhappily married woman to embark on some romanticised tramping
with him (“you’ll be hearing the herons crying out over the black

Vaughan Williams set Hugh and Mary’s story to the most gloriously
tuneful music possible. Hugh the Drover has the same sort of melodic
richness as Cavalleria Rusticana, and as with Mascagni’s
masterpiece much of it appears to be constructed from the very stuff of popular
song. The analogy can be taken further, too: both these operas of high passions
in country places have an unpretentious, spontaneous, youthful freshness about
them (though Vaughan Williams was no youth when he wrote Hugh); and
both include extensive choral music to construct a musical portrait of a
community, the values of which have a significant bearing on the foregrounded
action. What is most surprising, though, is that Vaughan Williams wrote some
passionate, thrilling vocal lines for Hugh and Mary that would by no means be
out of place in Cavalleria.

But while Mascagni’s opera conquered the world and came to define the
very idea of “popular opera,” Hugh the Drover signally
failed. Written between 1910 and 1914, no production could be arranged before
the First World War erupted. After the war Vaughan Williams tinkered with it,
and for unexplained reasons there was no production until 1924, when the
British National Opera Company gave three performances at the end of their
season. Since then there have been a considerable number of productions, nearly
all of them in Britain, but it has been shunned by the big companies and come
nowhere near to being a standard repertoire work.

It would be unfair to blame this wholly on the libretto. Hugh the
gives out mixed messages about what it wants to be, unlike Ethel
Smyth’s closely contemporary The Boatswain’s Mate (1916),
which similarly set out to be a “popular opera” and enjoyed vastly
more success (it was in the repertory of the Old Vic in the 1920s). The
Boatswain’s Mate
, too, is a story of country life with music that
often seems close to popular song. But Smyth, who prepared her own libretto,
created far more believable characters and even when they sing in an obviously
“operatic” fashion the dramatic illusion is maintained that they
are ordinary people inhabiting their ordinary culture (just as in Albert
, say). By contrast, Hugh and Mary are not remotely credible as
real country folk and their vision of marriage is purely fantastical. They are
operatic lovers, as much Italian as British, and in their passion seem to enter
a world of “high” culture remote from the popular culture of the
village around them.

Should Hugh the Drover, then, be produced as a folksy village
piece, or as a stirring, “operatic” love story, a sort of English
verismo? Uncertainty has been fatal to the opera’s success. Big
companies have no doubt correctly concluded that serious productions
emphasising the more operatic qualities would get a thorough mauling from the
professional critics (whose taste for British opera seldom ventures back
further than Britten). The thinness of the story, the lack of psychological
interest, and the clunky poetry of the libretto, too often unintentionally
funny, would all be exposed. On the other hand, the size of the opera, and the
musical demands it makes, have been major discouragements to the amateur and
semi-professional companies who might be attracted to its more folksy,
fun-filled side, and who could give it the sort of down to earth treatment as
unpretentious entertainment that the story is best designed to support.

It would perhaps be a slight exaggeration to suggest that all the problems
surrounding Hugh the Drover have been solved at a stroke by Hampstead
Garden Opera, but it is close to the truth. Their production feels absolutely
right. It has been made possible by a new reduced version of the score for
chamber orchestra prepared by Oliver-John Ruthven; it’s pleasing to note
that this was undertaken “with permission, encouragement and generous
support from the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust” and is now available
to hire. At the small Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre the musicians are
unobtrusively tucked away to one side of the performance space, the rest of
which is transformed into a Georgian town square. The audience is essentially
in the imagined town, which comes across as the sort of charming vision of
English country life in yesteryear in which we all like to believe. The theatre
itself is famously above a pub, drinks can be taken upstairs, hardly anyone
bothers to dress up, and the simplicity of it all is perfectly suited to the
imagined world of Hugh the Drover, which could easily appear absurdly
quaint framed by an elaborate proscenium arch.

The secret of Hampstead Garden Opera’s success, I think, is that they
concentrate simply on the entertainment value of the opera. They neither
attempt to dignify it with a serious treatment, nor trace some meaning in it
that simply isn’t there, nor, heaven forbid, try to make it
“relevant.” They do not send it up, but they
“sub-reference” the audience, to use Charles Lamb’s term,
just enough to say “look, this is all tremendous fun, and we’re
really enjoying ourselves.” This palpable sense of enjoyment conveyed by
the singers, combined with the sheer immediacy of the production, was
tremendously infectious, and it is hard to imagine anyone with a taste for
musical theatre, of whatever stamp, not enjoying this production. Indeed for
anyone who’s “afraid of opera” but likes other kinds of
musical theatre, this Hugh the Drover can be recommended as an
irresistible introduction to the art form. Peter Grimes can wait till

The openness of the production to the pure pleasure of the work was not at
the expense of any significant compromise in musical values. Zachary Devin and
Phillipa Murray were superb as Hugh and Mary, both singing in the strong,
impassioned but unshowy way that Vaughan Williams would have wanted. The
supporting roles were sung in character very ably, and the chorus sang their
socks off whenever they had the chance. Oliver-John Ruthven conducted himself,
providing a spirited and faultless accompaniment to the proceedings; some
subtleties in the full score were doubtless sacrificed in the rearrangement,
but I can’t say I noticed, and I doubt anyone else did either.

Altogether, while I can imagine technically more polished versions of
Hugh the Drover, I find it hard to imagine a better one, and now that
it has been adjusted to the needs of smaller companies and venues I hope it
will become more widely recognised for what it is: not a great opera, but great
operatic entertainment, with melodies that lodge themselves in your head for

David Chandler

image_description=Philippa Murray as Mary and Zachary Devin as Hugh the Drover [Photo by Laurent Compagnon courtesy of Hampstead Garden Opera]
product_title=Ralph Vaughan Williams: Hugh the Drover
product_by=Hugh the Drover: Zachary Devin; Mary: Phillipa Murray; John the Butcher: David Roberts; Aunt Jane: Charlotte King; The Showman / Sergeant: James Williams; The Constable: Ian Helm; The Turnkey: Nick Whitfield; The Ballad Seller: Robert Davis. Hampstead Garden Opera and the Dionysus Ensemble. Music Director / Conductor: Oliver-John Ruthven. Production Director: Angela Hardcastle. Set and Costume Designer: Charlie Tymms. Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate, London, 12 November 2011 (matinee).
product_id=Above: Philippa Murray as Mary and Zachary Devin as Hugh the Drover [Photo by Laurent Compagnon courtesy of Hampstead Garden Opera]