The Rose and the Ring

As I’ve written elsewhere (In
) , with its merry-go-round exchange of deluded and
bewitched lovers, an orphan-turned-princess, a usurped prince, a jewel and
a flower with magical properties, a march to the scaffold and a meddling
‘mistress-of-ceremonies’ who encourages the young lovers to
disguise and deceive, it invites transformation into an opera
Delighting in its absurdities, Sir Nicholas Jackson has done
just that, composing new vocal lines which set a libretto formed from
Thackeray’s text, and combining them with arrangements of some of
Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas. The result is an opera
whose action and music are fresh, piquant, splendidly absorbing and
charmingly wrong-footing; and, which retains the oxymoronic blend of
innocence and sophistication which characterises Thackeray’s

Set ‘ten or twenty thousand years ago’, the novel presents
the outlandish and convoluted outcomes of the Fairy Blackstick’s
meddling and cursing. The titular rose and ring are magical objects that
result in the ocular duping of those who behold the bearer, rendering the
latter utterly irresistible. After years of granting this blessing of
‘beauty’ to generations of royal spoiled brats, Blackstick
decides to change tack, telling her godchildren that ‘the best thing
I can send you is a little misfortune’.

As a result, Prince Giglio, rightful King of Paflagonia has lost his
throne, which has been usurped by his uncle, Valoroso XXIV. Princess
Rosalba, rightful Queen of Crim Tartary, was thrown into a lion-infested
forest after Duke Padella overthrew her father, and there she wandered
until turning up in Paflagonia. Now known as Betsinda, Rosalba endures a
life of servitude as Princess Angelica’s maid. Meanwhile,
Blackstick’s ring (presented by the besotted Prince Giglio who
inherited it from his mother) has bestowed deceptive loveliness on the ugly
frump Angelica, and her admirers include Prince Bulbo, Padella’s fat,
idle son, who has inherited his mother’s rose. The protagonists, who
include the wonderfully named Governess Gruffanuff and Captain Hogginarmo,
play pass-the-parcel with the rose and ring, and romantic chaos ensues:
hostages are taken, obdurate porters are turned into door-knockers, and
Rosalba is sentenced to death in the lion-arena. Finally, bewitchments are
reversed, rightful betrothals fulfilled … and Blackstick

Retaining as much of Thackeray’s text as possible, Sir Nicholas
has arranged the action into two Acts of ten and twelve scenes
respectively, illuminating the credence-straining links between them via
narration which was delivered immaculately and captivatingly by actor Tim
Pigott-Smith. As raconteur, he displayed persuasive sincerity as events
became ever more incredible; only the merest raising of an eyebrow, the
slightest of pauses, or a telling stare hinted that there was anything
remarkable about the hocus pocus. Evidently himself beguiled by both the
tale and its sung rendition, Pigott-Smith encouraged our applause —
‘Well, I’m enjoying it!’ — and managed to be both
guileless participant and knowing observer.

We were also treated to a slide-show of some of the illustrations which
Thackeray himself provided for the book. He had originally hoped to be an
illustrator, but when Charles Dickens declined his drawings for
Pickwick Papers, Thackeray embarked on a writing career. The
illustrations, here coloured in the bright tints of fairy-tale by Nadia
Jackson, suggest that it was Dickens’ loss, for the scenes and
portraits depicted add considerable irony. Thus, the first is politely
captioned, ‘This is Valoroso XXIV, King of Paflagonia, seated with
his queen and only child at their royal breakfast-table …’,
above which we see the king engrossedly pouring over a letter
which has been sent by Padella, while his fleshy, jowly wife greedily tucks
into the dozen boiled eggs and monstrous tureen of porridge which have been
prepared for her breakfast feast.

This visual dimension of the evening was an appealing enhancement.
Eccentric fantasy or slapstick romance, The Rose and the Ring is
also a sharp caricature of people and events of Thackeray’s day,
presenting stereotypes of the worst elements of human nature. As the
illustrations flashed in sequence I was put in mind of both John
Tenniel’s drawings for Lewis Carroll and William Hogarth’s
satirical cartoons. Indeed, it wouldn’t be amiss to describe this
opera as a cross between Alice in Wonderland and The
Rake’s Progress
, not least because Sir Nicholas’s
superimposition of well-defined vocal lines upon Scarlatti’s
audacious music evokes the neoclassical invention of Stravinsky’s
eponymous opera.

The young cast acquitted themselves admirably in what are challenging
vocal roles. The melodies, often quite long-breathed, and sit in
quasi-alignment with Scarlatti’s harmonies and phrase structures.
Indeed, it is the asymmetries and unexpected twists, turns and convergences
which give the music its distinctive and engaging identity. But, these
vocal parts also require a lot of technical discipline and control,
particularly as many of the arias are precipitous and have accompaniments
characterised by busy interchanges and alternating textures. Moreover,
there are a lot of words to fit in, and often no obvious place to take a
breath. That the singers were not wedded to their scores but also aimed to
communicate the dramatic inferences and contexts to the audience was even
more noteworthy. With just an array of headwear — a crown, tiara,
towering feathered hat, fez, porter’s cap — together with a
regal gown and garter, and a sparkly wand, the soloists instantly defined
character and relationships, even though many were taking two or more

I found Sir Nicholas’s score intriguing and engaging throughout;
there was always some detail, contrast, juxtaposition or tartness to
capture the interest. In Scenes 1 and 2, the steady decorated triplets of
Scarlatti’s K.215 sonata said much about the sluggish pomposity of
King Valaroso XXIV, a role sung impressively by Michael Mofidian who used
his stentorian but warm bass to convey the King’s self-absorbed
inanity. Mofidian, whose diction was superlative, threw himself
enthusiastically into a range of minor parts — coachman, gaoler,
officer and porter; and in the latter role demonstrated a tangy cockney

The slow climb through irregular major/minor thirds and subsequent
tip-toeing descent which commences Scarlatti’s K.30 — known as
‘The Cat’s Fugue’ — was the perfect introduction to
Fairy Blackstick in Act 1 Scene 3, and this challenging aria was sung with
character by soprano Robyn Parton who here modified the sweetness and
brightness with which she imbued Rosalba’s melodies. Parton found
diverse colours, and negotiated the harmonic quirks and awkward arcs of
this aria securely. The bouncing octave leaps and pounding rising arpeggios
of K.2 marked the arrival of Prince Bulbo in Scene 4, a role sung by bass
Edward Grint, with a lovely dark edge to the tone. Scene 5 in the same Act,
‘In the Palace Gardens’, was a boisterous ensemble enlivened by
the strings’ mordants and trills (K.460).

In Act 2 Scene 5, the male quartet in Captain Hedzoff’s (Peter
Aisher) army were booming of voice, as William Morgan’s Prince Giglio
won them over with his persuasive lyricism, in order to save Rosalba from
King Padella’s lions. The ‘tremendous battle’ of Scene
10, certainly lived up to Thackeray’s account of ‘Trumpets
pealing, chargers prancing, stabbing, slashing, axing, lancing’, with
the syncopations of K.546 put to good effect. Completing the cast,
mezzo-soprano Katy Coventry displayed poise and vocal relaxation as
Gruffanuff, soprano Katherine Crompton sparkled as a soubrette-like
Angelica, while soprano Sophie Shilson (Queen) struggled a little to
project but displayed a clean line.

In many ways the Drapers’ Hall was the perfect venue. The opulent
Livery Hall, enlarged to its present size by Herbert Williams in the 1860s,
boasts twenty-eight marble columns, an impressive display of the
Drapers’ Company’s collection of royal portraits, and Herbert
Draper’s rich-toned ceiling panels, commissioned by the Company in
1901, presenting scenes from The Tempest and A Midsummer
Night’s Dream
— a fitting counterpart to The Rose and
the Ring
’s blend of hyperbole and artifice, grandiosity and
magic, particularly as the story grew out of a set of Twelfth
pictures that Thackeray made for his young daughters.

In practice, however, the dimensions and acoustic of the venue presented
some challenges. I was fortunate to be seated at the front of the Hall.
But, with the low-level raised dais placed at one end of the long room and
the screened illustrations stage-right, sight-lines may have been more
restricted behind me. The size of the platform necessitated the placement
of the singers behind the instrumental players, making both projection and
ensemble more testing. The singers did not seem entirely happy with their
positioning in the opening few numbers, but as they gained in confidence
most reached out clearly over the instrumentalists, and the men in
particular demonstrated crystal clear diction. As the cast increasingly
embraced the more outré qualities of Thackeray’s outlandish
creations, and engaged in lively dramatic interplay, I regretted that there
had not been some way to move the singers to the fore, so that they could
indulge their thespian instincts and we could enjoy more immediate
engagement with the characters’ antics. Presumably, the different
spatial dimensions of The Charterhouse, where the opera was to be formed
the following evening, accommodated a more comfortable stage

It can’t have been ideal for the instrumentalists either, with
strings spread in a thin line at the front of the platform, woodwind
forming a quartet to one side and harpsichord placed to the rear; in
particular, the sound of the latter, played with refinement by Masumi
Yamamoto, struggled to rise over the intermediate collective

Sir Nicholas had previously described his intention to place the
instrumentalists antiphonally, and in the light of the score’s
juxtaposition of string and wind timbres — and lively interplay
between them — a necessary compromise must have been disappointing,
but also short-lived and ultimately inconsequential, for the playing of the
Concertante of London was splendid. Leader Madeleine Easton did sterling
work from a centrally placed position, indicating tempo, articulation and
dynamic with utmost clarity and, seemingly alert to every detail of the
complicated score, offering clear guidance to the whole ensemble of players
and singers.

I did wonder whether the decision to use baroque bows was the right one,
though, for some of the scores more delicate contrapuntal dialogue would
surely have been more incisive with modern alternatives: the opening of the
Prologue did not quite make the mark it deserved as, with one player to a
part, the initial string arguments were rather lacking in definition and
decisiveness. The strings were, inevitably, also out-powered by the
woodwind quartet — bassoonist Adam Mackenzie relished the coloristic
effects and registral contrasts of his part, while Jade Bultitude’s
flute added a vitalizing sweetness to the timbre. A better balance will no
doubt be engineered for the forth-coming Nimbus recording.

Sir Nicholas Jackson has done a terrific job in marrying diverse worlds
while retaining the idiosyncratic uniqueness of Thackeray’s novel.
Initially, I was surprised that the music of some sonatas were chosen to
accompany more than one scene but, then, each Scarlatti sonata seems to
possess unlimited variety of passion and expression. Sir Nicholas’s
The Rose and the Ring shows us the inventiveness, unpredictability
and joviality common to both Thackeray and Scarlatti, as well as their
underlying perspicacity.

Claire Seymour

Production details:

Libretto: Sir Nicholas Jackson, based on William Makepeace Thackeray

Composer: Sir Nicholas Jackson (adaptions of harpsichord sonatas by
Domenico Scarlatti)

Narrator: Tim Pigott-Smith

Prince Giglio — William Morgan (tenor), Prince Bulbo/Count Hogginarmo
— Edward Grint (bass), Rosalba/Fairy Blackstick — Robyn Parton
(soprano), Angelica — Katherine Crompton (soprano), Gruffanuff
— Katy Coventry (mezzo-soprano), Hedzoff — Peter Ainsher
(tenor), King Valaroso XXIV — Michael Mofidian (bass), Queen —
Sarah Shilson (soprano); Conductor — Sir Nicholas Jackson, Designer
— Janette Bonar Law, Artwork — Nadia Jackson, Concertante of
London (Madeleine Easton — leader).

Drapers’ Hall, City of London, Wednesday 4th May 2016

image_description=Frontispiece from The Rose and Ring (1855)
product_title=The Rose and the Ring
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Frontispiece from The Rose and Ring (1855)