Holst: The Perfect Fool / Groves, BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra
The opera opens with a Wizard working his mystical ways and summoning the spirits of air, fire and water in the form of a brilliant ballet. His plan is to wed the Princess who is destined to select a husband that very day. An older Mother enters with a drowsy sleep-prone son in tow. The Mother is obsessed with a prophecy her son will woo and win the Princess. There is an elixir of course and once drained the man who does so will be loved by the Princess. The Wizard tries some of this on the Princess. The Mother has already switched it for pure water while administering the elixir to her yawning son. The Wizard flies into a fury promising to bring death and destruction on everyone. He departs. A troubadour and a wanderer have appeared and pay songful court to the Princess which she is having none of. When the Princess sees the Fool she falls in love with him and asks him to marry her. He answers with the word ‘No’ but the whole scenario leaves you wondering about their future. The Wizard returns with his horrors but after some stern and encouraging words from the Mother all the Wizard’s fell crew are burnt to a crisp.
The opening dances, the best music in the work, invariably overbalance things given they all appear at the start. Charles Groves directs, and his Holst studio recordings – The Hymn of Jesus, Short Festival Te Deum, Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda Group 2 and the Ode to Death – were always an index of his excellence in this repertoire, as indeed in all his recordings of British music. He finds the core of Holst’s rhythmic vivacity in the dances, those piquant cross-rhythms and jaunty use of his own instrument, the trombone, and he is just as good in the limpidity of the Spirits of the Water dance as he is in the vivid pounding, Planets-like, of the Dance of Fire, with its eventful touches of Spanishry and convulsive, well-balanced percussion.
The role of the Wizard is taken by the bass Richard Golding and you can imagine him in the The Dream of Gerontius though I see that he was active in opera and sang in a Scottish performance of George Lloyd’s John Socman and in a TV performance of Arthur Bliss’ Tobias and the Angel. Given the strange temperature of the opera, it comes as a surprise that Holst can turn in a seemingly straightforwardly fine scene – try track nine – where the words are well set and the choral role is sensible. There’s more than a whiff of G & S though in the subsequent passage, and when the Troubadour appears (John Mitchinson), Holst pokes fun at Verdian posturing allowing the Princess, the fine Margaret Neville, to pastiche the Troubadour’s own pastiche. In the twelfth track one finds another G & S chorus, Wagnerian vengeance and a stock peasant character. There’s a brief sonic cataclysm in the thirteenth track, trumpets and percussion to the fore, that shows that Holst couldn’t quite suppress his instincts for drama and in fact the orchestration throughout is always apt and colourful.
Contralto Pamela Bowden has a strong role as The Mother and all the characters, singing or speaking, acquit themselves well. In the service of what, precisely, I’m not quite sure. There are lots of operas that really aren’t operas so maybe if you think of The Perfect Fool as a pantomime-ballet-pastiche operetta rather as one thinks of Lord Berners’s The Triumph of Neptune as a ballet-pantomime-harlequinade, you won’t be far wrong and you won’t be disappointed. Full credit to Lyrita for this retrieval however, though you’ll notice a few deviations from the libretto in the actual performance. Talking of this, the notes are contained in one booklet, the libretto in another. The box artwork has been well selected. This work has never appeared in full on disc before and the archive sound quality is excellent.
– MusicWeb International
Release Date: September 03, 2021
Catalog Number: REAM1143
Number of Discs: 1
Composer: Gustav Holst
Conductor: Charles Groves
Orchestra/Ensemble: BBC Northern Singers, BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra
Performer: Alison Hargan, Barbara Platt, David Read, George Hagan, John Mitchinson, Lesley Rooke, Margaret Neville, Pamela Bowden, Richard Golding, Ronald Harvi, Walter Plinge