English Touring Opera perform Tippett and Britten

Covid-19 brought English Touring Opera’s Spring 2020 tour of Giulio Cesare, Così fan tutte and the St John Passion to an untimely halt, but the company got back on the road in the autumn, with an artist-led programme curated by Artistic Director James Conway.  Lyric Solitude comprised three programmes of 20th-century compositions, each for a single singer with piano accompaniment.  In keeping with the spirit of the hour, the focus was the voice of the individual in isolation, and the power of song and poetry, with responses to that power in drama, movement and image.  With characteristic invention and resourcefulness, the autumn tour was to be accompanied by explorations of its theme in a video series with readings and reflections by performers, composers and broadcasters, streamed via social media.

Sadly, the national lockdown in November scuppered ETO’s plans for a second time, but not before ETO’s productions of works by Britten, Tippett and Shostakovich had been adapted by BAFTA-nominated director, Tim Van Someren and filmed at Hackney Empire. The resulting four videos are being released on consecutive Fridays throughout January.  Each film is free to view on Marquee TV for seven days from the first broadcast.  The New Year’s Day broadcast offered seldom-heard works by Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten. 

Tippett’s song-cycle The Heart’s Assurance was commissioned by Peter Pears and first performed by him and Britten in 1951.  It is dedicated to ‘all those who lost their lives and loves in the brutality of battle’, though Tippett added, ‘I thought of the song-cycle as having a subtitle: “Love under the shadow of Death.”’ Tippett, who was imprisoned as a Conscientious Objector during World War II, chose to set texts by poets who shared his pacifistic leanings, selecting three poems (‘Song’, ‘Compassion’ and ‘The Dancer’) by Alun Lewis, a young Welshman who was killed, aged nineteen, in Burma in 1944, and two (‘Song: The Heart’s Assurance’ and ‘Remember Your Lovers’) by Sidney Keyes, who died mysteriously at the age of twenty while serving in Africa in 1943.  The first, third and fifth poems treat the theme of war directly: the first addresses a soldier-lad, the third depicts a woman tending the bloodied wounds of a dying man, and the final song portrays young men ‘in the carven beds of death’. 

The poet-speakers are not first-person participants, excepting a brief moment in the second song, ‘The Heart’s Assurance’, when the speaker addresses ‘you’, ‘my lovely’.  In addition to its general dedication, the cycle was also composed in memory of Francesca Allinson, the British-German Jewish writer and musicologist who shared Tippett’s pacifism, and who had occasionally lived with him in his cottage before she committed suicide in 1945.  Suzanne Robinson has written of their friendship and Tippett’s profound sense of loss upon Allinson’s death, suggesting that Allinson, who was bisexual, had attempted to persuade Tippett of the ‘possibility of having children together’ and that her death was ‘a cataclysm’ for Tippett: ‘Questioning, as he did, whether he had contributed to her despair reopened a ‘personal wound’ that he knew would never heal.  In 1950 he began a song cycle in Allinson’s memory, following her instructions to “keep a place warm for me in your heart”.’[1]

The Heart’s Assurance (1951) alternates slow and fast songs.  Before tenor Thomas Elwin’s arrival on the darkened stage, actor Richard Dowling unfurls a white bedroll and positions himself, standing, at one end of the meagre strip of bedding, staring intently at Elwin who, similarly attired in working-class shirtsleeves and high-waisted trousers, carries on a chair and seats himself.  Lewis’s ‘Song’ presents loss as a Fall from prelapsarian innocence, and Elwin is an earnest and sweet-toned vocalist, enunciating the poetic text clearly and with sincerity, negotiating both the rhythmic irregularity and melodic heights surely.  Pianist Ian Tindale glitters and skitters through the piano’s virtuosic, perhaps overly complex, elaborations; one advantage of recording is that the engineers can ensure that the decorative accompaniment does not overwhelm the vocal line, and Elwin is convincing in his reassurance to the young widow that “life has trembled in a kiss/ from genesis to genesis/ and what’s transfigured will live on/ long after death has come and gone.” – words which confirm Tippett’s faith in memory and in music, and which echo through the whole cycle. 

Bernadette Iglich’s direction is light touch; indeed, in this opening song Dowling stands entirely still, approaching Elwin only when, at the close, the tenor rises and moves to one side.  Elwin directs ‘The Heart’s Assurance’ at the seated Dowling, circling and warning, “O never trust your pride of movement/ Trust only pride’s distress”, for “The beast of pride is hunted out/ And baited throughout the town.”  The tenor agilely negotiates Tippett’s rhetorical melismas, and strengthens and softens his tone in sympathy with the poetic imagery.  The voice has more help from the piano in this song: they share motifs and build persuasively to the climactic assertions, and Tindale is an articulate and sensitive partner. 

In ‘Compassion’, singer and pianist effectively contrast the initial juxtaposition of the elongated, low vocal line and rapid, repetitive piano figuration with the subsequent slow, unison arcs, moving skilfully between momentum and stasis.  Elwin is a very eloquent poet-narrator, and has no difficultly in reaching the extreme heights to which Tippett pushes the voice to capture the sensuality of Lewis’s verses: “And he who babbled Death/ Shivered and drew still/ In the meadows of her breath,/ Restoring his dark will.”  In the final verse, the muscular strength of the ecstatic melisma conveys the virility of the poetic image: “Nor did she ever stir/ In the storm’s calm centre/ To feel the tail, hooves, fur/ Of the god-faced centaur.”   Dowling lying prone across the bedroll, occasionally shifting position, is a slightly incongruous figure given the committed fervour of the music and text, and their forthright and raw delivery by Elwin. 

Thomas Elwin and Richard Dowling

Similarly, though movements of the dancer described in the fourth poem are represented by the piano’s swirling scales and curlicues, Dowling sways only slightly as he turns slowly on the spot.  Again, I am unsure what Iglich is trying to communicate through this restrained kinaesthetic imagery, but Elwin’s energised melismas and textual repetitions capture the dancer’s agitation and distress, as well as the passion of the dance which, at least partially, assuages her grief: “‘Had he not died we would have wed,/ And still I’d dance,’ the dancer said,/ ‘To keep the creeping sterile doom/ Out of the darkness of my womb.’” 

As Dowling slowly rolls up the bedding and hugs it to his chest, Elwin implores ardently at the start of ‘Remember your lovers’, his unaccompanied tenor ringing firmly through the varied poetic refrain which punctuates the stanzas, “Young men walking the open streets/Of death’s republic, remember your lovers.”  The heavy, juddering chords with which the piano enters at the end of the first vocal phrase seem a reference to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, and it’s hard, too, not to hear echoes of Purcell’s lamenting Dido in the beseeching entreaties to “remember”, particularly when the vocal line rests on a high E – the pitch which Pears himself particularly liked and which Britten exploited so frequently in his writing for the tenor.

Tippett declared that the voice in ‘Remember Your Lovers’ was that of ‘a young woman singing out over the Elysian fields to the young men in the fields beyond’, yet Robinson notes that he wrote to Britten that he could ‘so clearly … hear Peter calling to the young men in the fields of death, even though formally it may be supposed to be a woman.  I can’t quite tell why, but the man’s voice seems right-er – and Peter’s particularly.’   The final line of the poem, so eloquently sung by Elwin, may reach toward a private meaning: “Remember your lovers who gave you more than love.”

Britten’s vocal compositions were usually composed with a particular singer in mind.  During the 1940s, the mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans, wife of Britten’s librettist Eric Crozier, sang the part of Lucretia, alternating the role with Kathleen Ferrier in the English Opera Group’s 1946 premiere production of The Rape of Lucretia, and created the roles of Nancy in Albert Herring and Polly Peacham in Britten’s realisation of Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.  In early 1948, at the Holland Festival at The Hague, she premiered the song-cycle A Charm of Lullabies (1947) which Britten composed for her, setting poems by William Blake, Robert Burns, Robert Greene, Thomas Randolph and John Phillip.

Dressed in a grey school pinafore, frilly white blouse and ankle socks, mezzo-soprano Katie Stevenson drags a misshapen burden onto the stage and then proceeds to beguile the lumpen mass to sleep.  Stevenson’s voice is full and even, resting soothingly on the piano’s Purcellian wandering, though her furrowed brow and tense expression suggest that this nursemaid’s thoughts are focused on the “dreadful lightnings” that will break, “When thy little heart does wake”.  She makes much of the text, placating the listener – the imagined child and the actual audience – with Blake’s repetitions and alliteration, and emphasising significant phrases such as the “the cunning wiles that creep/ In thy little heart asleep” which seems to allude to the loss of innocence which is a recurring theme in so many of Britten’s works.   Though she playfully pulls back the grey cloth covering the mound to reveal some tiny feet at the start of ‘A Highland Balou’, it’s a pity that Stevenson doesn’t seek to convey the vigour of Burns’ poem, in which a poor woman sings to her son and expresses the hope that he will grow up strong so he can steal cattle, a customary practice in the eighteenth-century Highlands by which the lower echelons could climb the social ladder.  Nor does she capture its regional colour – though Britten matches the music effectively to the inflections of Burns’ text.

Retrieving the doll to which the tiny feet belong, dangling it aloft, then casting it roughly aside, in ‘Sephestia’s Song to Her Childe’ (from Robert Greene’s 1589 pastoral romance, Menaphos) Stevenson moves persuasively between the wearied, sparsely accompanied refrain – “Weep not, my wanton, smile upon my knee;/ When thou art old there’s grief enough for thee” – and rueful reflections on the fact that childbirth both initiates the infant into sorrow but also brings sorrow upon the parents.  Tindale’s lightly tripping accompaniment betrays the agitation and regret that infects the mother’s song, as Stevenson whips back the mound’s covering to reveal a colourful tangle of dolls.   

James Conway directs these five character-studies of lullaby-singing mothers and nurses, and he captures their growing collective frustration at their infants’ restlessness.  ‘A Charm’ is anything but!  Stevenson climbs upon the doll-mountain and issues a firm command, “Quiet! Sleep!”, strengthened by the piano’s rumbling growl and flourished chordal interjections.  Presumably, the instruction is ignored for a terrible threat follows, “… or I will make/ Erinnys whip thee with a snake,/ And cruel Rhadamanthus take/ Thy body to the boiling lake,/ Where fire and brimstones never slake.”  Stevenson relishes the text, and the lop-sided metre.

‘The Nurse’s Song’ brings succour.  Seated atop the pile of dolls, Stevenson issues a composed appeal, her repeated coaxing, “Lullaby baby”, assuaging the listener as her rich mezzo is complemented by Britten’s gentle, though never saccharine, harmonies and rocking rhythms.  The closing, unaccompanied plea will soothe the most restless spirit.

This filmed performance is available to watch, free of charge, until 8 January. 

Claire Seymour

Tippett: The Heart’s Assurance
Thomas Elwin (tenor), Richard Dowling (actor), Ian Tindale (piano) Bernadette Iglich (director), Tim van Someren (film director)

Britten: A Charm of Lullabies – Katie Stevenson (mezzo-soprano), Ian Tindale (pianist), James Conway (director), Tim van Someren (film director)

English Touring Opera, filmed at the Hackney Empire; Friday 1st January 2021 (streamed on Marquee TV).

ABOVE: Katie Stevenson in Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies.

[1] Robinson, Suzanne. (2013) “‘Coming out to Oneself’: Encodings of Homosexual Identity from the First String Quartet To The Heart’s Assurance”, in The Cambridge Companion to Michael Tippett, edited by Kenneth Gloag and Nicholas Jones.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 86–102.