Classical: The new life of Brian's `Cenci'
Havergal Brian's `The Cenci' QEH, SBC, London
Friday 19 December 1997
The Cenci is Shelley's account of the ghastly but true history of how the corrupt and depraved Count Cenci systematically abused and eventually raped his daughter Beatrice, who then arranged her father's murder and, along with her step-mother Lucrezia and brother Giacomo, was executed by order of the Pope.
Brian was 75 when, in 1951, he sat down to compose The Cenci, excising large parts of Shelley's five-act drama to bring it down to eight compact scenes but losing none of its primal horror. Last Friday's premiere revealed it to be a masterpiece - an unorthodox one, perhaps, and not without its problems, but none the less of unarguable and immediate power.
The work opens with an extensive Preludio tragico, flecked with unexpected humour and brief evocations of courtly dance that suggest a world lost to the characters about to be presented. Brian's writing for the orchestra is as natural as Chopin's for the piano, and draws on an extraordinarily inventive palette of unexpected instrumental combinations.
The elliptical style is that of the late Brian symphonies that are becoming better known in Marco Polo's on-going CD series: an entirely individual amalgam of a big-hearted English bonhomie that harks back to Elgar; and a much harder-edged astringent flavour that suggests Brian was fully aware of the most recent developments around him. Its dark, bass-heavy quality suits Shelley's Gothic atmosphere perfectly, with long-legged writing for the brass and lower strings - and there cannot be another opera with such a grateful part for tuba.
The declamatory nature of Brian's word-setting gives The Cenci a kind of hieratic, epic dignity that belies its gruesome subject. One of the problems that affected the premiere - the tendency of the orchestra to drown vocal lines - would largely be solved in a staged presentation, with the soloists better able to project above the orchestral wash. Another is less easily overcome: Brian intermittently asks his characters to get through an unrealistic amount of text in the time he leaves available, with the result that Shelley's image-laden lines sometimes go for nothing. That said, it worked: this was a very real dramatic experience of unusual intensity.
David Wilson-Johnson brought the evil Count to unnerving life, and Helen Field found the right blend of gentleness and steel in Beatrice; Inga Jonsdottir was a dignified Lucrezia and Stuart Kale a compelling Cardinal Camillo, with Nicholas Buxton, Jeffrey Carl and Justin Lavender all outstanding in a series of subsidiary roles.
The conductor of the Millennium Sinfonia was James Kelleher, a Bernstein protege. Brian's idiom is not an easy one to master, but in these hands it seemed as natural as eating beef off the bone. First performances this convincing are rare indeed.
The Cenci has waited nearly half a century to be heard. It now cries out to be staged.
The magicians using online collaboration to push boundaries
Jennifer Lawrence attacks mass media again over body image
Paris charity auction staged to save the ancient city of Tyre
scienceScientists find the answer to a question that even puzzled Darwin
A very timely Great Train Robbery and a frantic 24 Hours in A&E among the highlights
Life & Style blogs
The 10 Best Scotch Whiskies
America's 'virgin births'? One in 200 mothers 'became pregnant without having sex'
Last orders looming for Trappist beers as Belgium's band of brotherly brewers dies off
Facebook 'self-censorship': study records when you don't post to find more ways to share
Vitamin pills are a waste of money, offer no health benefits and could be harmful - study
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Fox News presenter tells viewers it is a 'fact' that both Jesus and Santa Claus are white
You can STILL be jailed for being a republican, government confirms, and it remains illegal to even 'imagine' overthrowing the Queen
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
Fighting back: the woman giving a voice (and 49,999 others) to the victims of sexism - by giving an airing to their horror stories
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
- 1 America's 'virgin births'? One in 200 mothers 'became pregnant without having sex'
- 2 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 4 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber announces he's 'retiring from music'
- 5 Children evacuated from swimming pool after prosthetic leg mistaken for paedophile
£25000 - £32000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Business Analyst - Banking...
£21999 - £27001 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have exten...
£25000 - £35000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Harrington Starr: Business Analy...
£42000 - £51000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Are You Receiving...