The rover's return

MUSIC; Enoch Arden Broomhill, Kent
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Few composers have been as astute at reading the market. Yet Richard Strauss's Enoch Arden, an hour-long setting of Tennyson's tragic poem - in which, unusually, the words are not sung but spoken, with a piano now punctuating, now accompanying the story - must have looked dated and Victorian as soon as it appeared, and has rarely been heard since. Even our own retro age has been slow in getting round to it.

That gave all the more appeal to Sunday night's performance at Broomhill, an acoustically superb theatre of the right period, recently put back on the map by some high-powered opera productions. The narrative is itself pretty operatic. Enoch, happily married to Annie, seeks his fortune at sea and disappears for 10 years, presumed lost. Annie, her misgivings at length overcome, marries his old friend and rival Philip and achieves a kind of healed contentment with her second family; but Enoch escapes from the island where he has been shipwrecked and finds his way home.

Now, if this had been Italian opera, an orgy of jealousy and vengeance would have ensued. But Enoch knows an Englishman's duty. He stiffens his upper lip and vows to let them live on as he fades away broken-hearted, revealing the truth only on his deathbed. It could be maudlin; it could be moving. All depends on the delivery, and Strauss pre-empted many of the speaker's choices.

Master of the lavish and loud though he might be, he gave it a score of steady tempo, sparse textures and subtly inflected feeling. The visionary endings of each "act" are strikingly characterised; strong, easily grasped themes recur. But there is no symphonic continuity, and Strauss left long silences for the tale to move forward without distraction. As a feat of heroic restraint, it almost matches Enoch's own.

It could have been made for Benjamin Luxon, whose progress from singer to actor has been unfolding at Broomhill, where he last year played Bottom - Shakespeare's, not Britten's. With his long-standing recital partner David Willison, dressed in period evening wear but not hamming it up, he began in calm and built over the entire span towards a single climax of direct, intense anguish. The warmth of the Cornish-inflected voice, the ease of delivery, had an unaffected tone that held his audience captivated.

Robert Maycock