When Ralph Vaughan Williams set out, early in his career, to turn a boxing match into opera, he could hardly have chosen a more impractical challenge. In the event, he did rather well: the fight between Hugh and his rival in love brings the first half of Hugh the Drover to a rousing climax. What has dated is the rest of the opera, a tale of love and small-mindedness in the Napoleonic-era Cotswolds, with a score that adds up to little more than a medley of English folk song.
Its last London staging was 50 years ago, and this touring version by New Sussex Opera, for all its many merits, explains why no established company will touch it. The story is one-dimensional and rooted to the era in which it is set. Much of the blame can be laid at the door of the librettist, Harold Child, but you can’t help feeling VW lacked the instinct for theatre that, a generation later, was to make Britten such an effective opera composer. The village in Hugh the Drover has no symbolic role as the Borough does in Peter Grimes. The characters have as much psychological depth as a cartoon strip, and the score fails to justify the sudden changes of mood.
This performance was nevertheless well worth hearing. Thanks to Nicholas Jenkins’ sprightly tempi, the music never drooped. Michael Moxham’s staging, simply designed by Yann Seabra and expertly costumed by Giulia Scrimieri, placed the action on a thrust stage in front of the orchestra, the chorus behind, which worked surprisingly well.
Daniel Norman may have looked more of a poet than a drover but he captured the character’s mystique and sang sweetly. Celeste Lazarenko’s Mary had the best voice, and Simon Thorpe was a suitably bluff John the Butcher. What New Sussex Opera has proved is that Hugh the Drover is a mild-mannered, feel-good opera that, despite trying to box hard, never really takes its gloves off. ()