Don’t worry if you have never even heard of an opera called The Immortal Hour. The truth is that not many people have!
English composer Rutland Boughton’s creation, however, which premiered at the inaugural Glastonbury Festival in 1914, was once described by Sir Edward Elgar as ‘a work of genius’, while in 1949 Ralph Vaughan Williams lamented that ‘In any other country, such a work would have been in the repertoire years ago’.
To mark the opera’s centenary Tarquin Productions, in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre, is offering the chance to see the work for the first time in London since 1953. For any seasoned opera-goer with an interest in ‘joining up the dots’ it is an opportunity not to be missed.
The story tells of a fairy princess who marries a human king before finally returning to her immortal lover. With the action occurring across the three realms of nature, society and dream (or fairytale), thematically it has much in common with such works as Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Carl Maria von Weber’s The Marksman, Wagner’s The Fairies, Dvořák’s Rusalka and Richard Strauss’s The Woman Without A Shadow.
The beautiful music, however, stands very much in the English vernacular tradition, even if there are still more than a few nods to Wagner. It is also interesting to consider the close parallels between the Celtic tales that Boughton utilised and the Nordic, Germanic and other myths used in various operas, so that The Immortal Hour can also be seen perhaps as the forerunner of Sir Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage.
The work is staged on an intimate scale in the compact Finborough Theatre, with the strong orchestra consisting of just cello, keyboard, basset clarinet and flute (or piccolo). The set consists entirely of five portable wooden frames, and with different coloured lights creating eerie effects as they shine through the gauze stretched across them, nothing else is needed.
Jeff Smyth and Michelle Cornelius are persuasive as the King and Fairy Princess, but it is Stiofán O'Doherty as the Lord of Shadow who stands out, while Kate Marlais, Matthew Crowe, Lee Van Geleen, Lydia Jenkins and Thomas Sutcliffe all leave an impression in the supporting roles.
The Immortal Hour may not be the best introduction for someone wanting to try opera for the first time, since much of the enjoyment derives from understanding its links to, and place within, a greater operatic tradition. By the same token, however, anyone wishing to enhance their knowledge of the genre should consider making the trip, rather than risk waiting another fifty years before this important early twentieth century work comes around again.
Every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at 7.30pm, and every Tuesday at 2.00pm, until 26 August at the Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED. For tickets (£16-£18) call 0844 847 1652 or visit the Finborough Theatre website.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket and programme from the Finborough Theatre.