Hugh the Drover

By Ralph Vaughan Williams

9, 10, 12, 13 October 2007
York Theatre Royal

A truly English opera by one of our country's best-loved composers, "Hugh The Drover" deserves to be heard and performed much more frequently. It is tuneful, lyrical and colourful with plenty of passion in its central love story. Vaughan Williams' opera was influenced by his earlier work, "Fantasia on English Folk Songs: Studies for an English Ballad Opera" (performed 1910), and contains all the elements of village life - Morris Men, a Prize Fight, confinement in the stocks and a troop of soldiers happy to press an unwilling recruit!

Photos of the show on stage in the Theatre Royal! Click on the pictures for a larger version. More pictures coming soon.

Hugh The Drover "makes me proud to be English."
Martin Dreyer, York Press


Full cast biographies and photos can be found by clicking here.

Set Design – John Soper

Costume Design – Maggie Soper

Review in Opera Magazine, December 2007

York Opera at the Theatre Royal, York, October 9

English opera-Britten, Tippett and Purcell apart-gets pretty short shrift these days. Not considered economically viable by the professional companies, virtually impossible for the amateurs, who are spurned outright by our short-sighted grant-givers, it falls between two stools. More power, then, to those brave souls like York Opera who buck the trend. An avowedly chorus-based company, it is able to dip into a substantial pool of semiprofessional soloists across Yorkshire for its principals. Having twice enjoyed success with Hugh the Drover in small, offbeat venues in the past three decades, the company took the plunge and gave four performances this time in a full-sized theatre. The gamble certainly paid off artistically in Clive Marshall's passionate production, liberating the chorus and allowing for an enlarged orchestra of nearly 40 under Alasdair Jamieson.

John Soper's set was conventional English pastoral, a village square with a distant prospect of rolling Cotswolds. But it was Margaret Soper's period costumes, skilfully covering all social strata, that fixed the action in the early 19th century, when Napoleon was still a threat to our shores. So it rang true when Hugh, on the verge of wresting his girl from the unwelcome embrace of the village bully, was accused of spying for the French. His winning combination of easy charm and sure feel for the Englishness required in his tone (despite being an Aussie) made Ben Kerslake an ideal Hugh. His top notes were nicely in place and his diction sure-fire, but he could also call on a gentler lyricism, as when lamenting his fate in the stocks. Diane Peacock's vulnerable, appealing Mary made the perfect foil for Hugh's attentions. But she belied her femininity with splendid bursts of colour at the top of her range. Her words gained clarity in Act 2 when she was into her vocal stride. Clive Goodhead injected immense panache into his patriotic Showman. Steve Griffiths's droll Constable was nicely balanced by Pauline Chadwick's motherly Aunt Jane. Ian Thomson-Smith made a forceful, clear-cut baddie out of John the Butcher. Chorus members added further spice in a host of cameos. Jamieson's players relished his relaxed flair, injecting plenty of rhythmic bite. The chorus as a whole was right on the ball, focused and in firm voice.

What of the work's viability? Vaughan Williams mainly sketched it between 1910 and 1914, towards the end of the period when he had collected some 800 folksongs. It follows close on the heels of On Wenlock Edge and the Tallis Fantasia. The fact that he continued to revise it until 1956, two years before his death, reveals how seriously he took it. It contains at least ten real or composed folk tunes, as well as, appropriately enough here, the psalm-tune `York' in the prelude to Act 2. Yet it does not shove folksiness or nationalism down one's throat, nor does it feel like a ballad opera, largely because its traditional strands are woven so deeply into powerful orchestration. The chorus is called upon to make some fairly abrupt changes of mood that do not always convince. Yet these do not invalidate the work as a whole. An English Bartered Bride? Perhaps not. But certainly Englishness to make one proud. More, please.

Martin Dreyer

The Sergeant arrests John the Butcher while the Turnkey and the Constable look on in horror (above left). The Ballad Seller entertains the villagers (above centre). A village maiden (above right).

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