The Glastonbury Arts Festival has been created to mark the 70th anniversary of the demise of an all-but-forgotten forerunner. The original festival, Boughton's brainchild, ran summers, Easters and Christmases from 1914 to 1927. The event ranged wide in repertoire terms, but The Immortal Hour was its heartbeat, hypnotising audiences with a tale of how the princess Etain strays from the faery Land of the Ever-Young into a mysterious forest, and so into the mortal world. She and King Eochaidh (a seeker after the "Immortal Hour", with its promise of "joy that is more great than joy") fall in love - but, alas, Etain's rightful prince, Midir, cruelly summons her home again in a trance.
The legend of The Immortal Hour's wider success can match anything boasted by Glastonbury's mystical past. In the wake of our Olympic disasters, how gratifying to note that, after 75 years, this oft-maligned work still holds for Britain the world record for the number of consecutive performances of a serious opera - 216 at the Regent Theatre near King's Cross in the early Twenties. "Right from the start it worked for everyone, from lords and ladies to typists," says Boughton's biographer, Michael Hurd. Holst, Bax and Elgar praised it - even sturdy, tweedy Ethel Smyth said it made a "great impression on my chest".
The impresario Barry Jackson had test-driven The Immortal Hour in a low-budget production at his Birmingham Repertory Theatre, following a tip-off that all Glastonbury was swooning. For its transfer to London he spent more lavishly, losing some pounds 8,000 even on that first stupendous run. The conventional wisdom has been that the appeal to the public lay in an hour or two's sentimental escape from the harsh realities of a world darkened by the Great War. If there is a deal of truth in that, the theory would not hold so well for Alan G Melville, who went with his mother to the revival at the Regent Theatre in the mid-Twenties, when he was still only an innocent 13. "I was bowled over by it - a magical world opened for me. The stage was beautifully lit, with a forest that seemed to go on for ever and ever. The star was Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Etain, with her odd but captivating voice. She made extraordinary floating movements with her hands, something to do with eurhythmics, which must have been in vogue just then!" All over London, Etain lookalikes stalked the streets, pale and distracted.
Melville and Mum, like pilgrims of old, set off for Glastonbury to find the source of such inspiration. From their lodgings at the Chalice Well Hostel, they attended, in 1925, the last performances of The Immortal Hour to be given at the Glastonbury Festival until those this month, as well as presentations of other Boughton music-dramas. They soon discovered that spartan productions were the norm. Boughton's original vision had been for a great national theatre at Glastonbury to rival Germany's Bayreuth, its artistic rationale Britain's answer to Wagner's Ring - a cycle of meaty operas based on Arthurian legends. But, like Boughton's Communist vision of a workers' utopia wresting control of the post-war world, it never threatened even to creep off the drawing-board. Productions of a range of his works for the stage - from The Birth of Arthur and The Queen of Cornwall to Bethlehem and The Immortal Hour - took place in laughably inadequate circumstances in Glastonbury's Assembly Rooms.
"I went to have a look at the place again the other year," recalls Melville, who by then had enjoyed the honour of conducting the first complete recording of The Immortal Hour (for the Hyperion label) in 1983. "I had to ask myself if this was really where it all happened - a space no bigger than a village hall. The stage was tiny, the lighting minimal, and there was only room for a piano as accompaniment. I can also remember the scenery for the castle in The Birth of Arthur being created by the performers wearing sand-coloured costumes!"
The faintest glimmer of detail of the very first performances of The Immortal Hour, at the inaugural 1914 festival, comes from Elsie Payne, whose father Thomas Payne was roped into the chorus along with other locals. "He popped upstairs to see me when he got home after the dress rehearsal. His costume and greasepaint were still on - he was done up as a tree ... I was terrified. He was always proud of having been a tree in the first performance." As she came of an age to take part in the festivals, Elsie Payne never thought twice about the homespun nature of the performances. "Once the lights went down, you were in a different world."
Payne recalls Boughton as "so dynamic. People gravitated towards him. He got the very best out of performers as a conductor ... he was ruthless in his discipline." Such force of personality enabled Boughton to persuade professionals down from London to give their services for minimal gain plus bed and breakfast. Hand to mouth it all may have been, but even that level of subsistence would not have been possible without the support mustered by Roger Clark, of Clarks the shoe-manufacturers in Street. The year-round Glastonbury programme of classes in music, drama and dance - pioneering for the day - must have appealed to Clark's Quaker belief in self-improvement. But he still had to swallow what - according to his son, Nathan - he described as Boughton's "serial monogamy", the occasional shifts in his amatory allegiances. Now in his eighties, and based in New York, Nathan Clark remembers his father as "a literary man who loved the arts. He not only gave his own money to Boughton, but would write round to wealthy friends like George Bernard Shaw to stump up more." Artistic generosity must run in the family: the 1996 festival, too, is receiving sponsorship from Clarks.
The Glastonbury festivals, none the less, depended too much on Boughton's energies alone. The Immortal Hour brought a fame that stimulated distractions by the dozen - offers of work as a choral conductor, music critic and lecturer on all manner of subjects, not least politics. If the composer's local supporters in Glastonbury just about swallowed his "serial monogamy", they couldn't stomach the sacrilege of his adapting a 1926 Christmas run of Bethlehem (at Church House in London) so that Christ was born into a mining community, with Herod the quintessential capitalist. Boughton had seen in the General Strike the moment both of crisis for capitalism and of opportunity for the workers. The stink over Bethlehem brought about the severance of all his links with Glastonbury.
From then on, Boughton's public profile subsided gradually towards anonymity. When he tried unsuccessfully to found other festivals at Stroud and Bath, it was to The Immortal Hour that he turned to pull the crowds. Soon the work that made his name itself drifted out of sight, to be dusted down only by the occasional enthusiast. According to his daughter, Jennifer, he never held with the notion that The Immortal Hour's triumph had detracted from the merits of his other stage works. "He blamed prejudice against his politics and private life for that. No, to the end of his life he remained delighted he'd had such a success, although he did resent the over-popularity of the Act 1 'Faery Song'."
Brendan Sadler, conductor of next week's performances in Street, promises a production doffing the cap at the Glastonbury tradition - small in scale, with locals in the chorus and a largely semi-professional cast - but with "orchestra instead of piano, plus plenty of suggestive use of gauze and subtle lighting effects. If it's successful, maybe we can present the opera every few years."
Michael Hurd reckons The Immortal Hour can work its magic still. "We need a sizeable production in the right place, given attention to detail and a completely non-cynical approach. Much of the opera's appeal in the Twenties was the escape it offered into this dream-like world, but Boughton insisted it was really a serious piece about the idea that perfection cannot last. I'd love to see it done at Glyndebourne - but not with its usual audience!"
Let scoffers note that among those who have fallen under the spell of The Immortal Hour is American director Frank Corsaro, internationally renowned for his work at New York City Opera. Corsaro has instigated and directed two productions of the opera in New York. "The 1983 recording was just captivating. I was intrigued by the idea of finding 'magical' solutions to the problem that the opera is so static - for example, I used long, hanging silks in various ways ... Etain 'evolves' from within them, they trap Eochaidh in the dark forest, become his shroud at the end, and so on. The musicians came to love the piece and audiences enjoyed it. The critics, of course, saw it as a bit of faded old musical history. But they're asses anyway."
n 'The Immortal Hour' will be performed by Glastonbury Festival Chorus and Orchestra at the Strode Theatre, Street, at 7.30pm, 29-31 Aug. Booking: 01458 442846Reuse content