Boughton at Glastonbury
Bethlehem is a rare treat
AUDIENCES at Glastonbury had a rare treat last week when new company Avalon Music staged Rutland Boughton’s choral drama Bethlehem in the parish church.
William Wych’s production proved that the work is much more than a mere curiosity. The soloists, chorus and orchestra, under the baton of Brendan Sadler, brought this familiar story of the Annunciation, the birth of Christ, the shepherds and wise men and the slaughter of the innocents to vivid life.
Boughton, founder of the Glastonbury Festival and in the early years of the 20th century hailed as “the English Wagner”, took the medieval Coventry Nativity Play for his libretto, interspersing his own music with familiar carols.
Bethlehem had its premiere in 1915 at Street, and went on to success with choral societies across the country. The work had many performances until, during the general strike [of 1926], the composer reworked the story to have Christ born in a miner’s cottage. This manipulation of the scripture so incensed Boughton’s patrons, the wealthy, and Quaker, shoe family Clarks, that they withdrew their support of his ventures. Since then the choral drama has been rarely performed, with only a handful of revivals — the most recent in St Albans in 1995.
Last week’s Glastonbury return was a richly rewarding experience. William Wych has established a loyal local following for his Miracles at Glastonbury, in which he has shown a respect for the religious aspects of his stories, an eye for comedy and a powerful theatrical sense. All these came into play in his production of Bethlehem, culminating in the dramatic backlighting of St John’s Church’s east window.
Using local singers and soloists with connections in the area, he and Brendan Sadler gathered a strong cast who rose to the challenges of the music. A large orchestra, 27 strong, positioned behind the acting area, and in front of the chorus, made the best use of the church’s acoustics, but the soloists sometimes had to battle to be heard. This was particularly noticeable for Andrew Gardiner as Herod. He has the most difficult singing part, and while he had no trouble with the notes, the words were lost.
So often re-enactments of the nativity story are marred by the unconvincing ages of the performers. Here the story was perfectly told, with 17-year-old Katie Murphy as the Virgin Mary, Leslie Skidmore as her much older husband, and the ethereal countertenor of Sebastian Field as the Angel Gabriel. The capering Jerry Jererniah led the shepherds down from the hills, and with Simon Francis and John Gray provided the comic relief. The beautifully balanced voices of sisters Saffron and Clarice Rarity, singing from the pulpit as the angel chorus, thrilled the audience.
After the interval the atmosphere changes, and Boughton’s music reflects the menacing presence of Herod. John McLean, Alex Clissold-Jones and Philip Lancaster were the exotic wise men, following the star to Bethlehem. Viola Nagel, a veteran Boughton performer, filled the church with her voice as the believer, and Andrew Gardiner was the malign presence of Herod the King, in all his raging.
This production makes you wonder why Boughton’s Bethlehem is not more frequently performed. It provides everything a choral society could want from a Christmas play, without the extreme demands of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors (the most performed opera in the world). It was an appetising taste of more Boughton to come from Avalon Music, and was a memorable and moving evening of musical drama. GP-W