Boughton: The Queen of Cornwall

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Boughton
LABELS: Dutton
WORKS: The Queen of Cornwall
PERFORMER: Philip Tebb, Patricia Orr, Neal Davies, Heather Shipp, Peter Wilman, Jacques Imbrailo, Joan Rodgers; New London Orchestra; Members of the London Chorus/Ronald Corp
CATALOGUE NO: 2CDLX 7256 113

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Rutland Boughton’s The Queen of Cornwall is based on Thomas Hardy’s verse-drama on the Tristan-Iseult legend. Premiered in Glastonbury in 1924, this is often claimed to be one of Boughton’s greatest operas, perhaps the greatest. And in this long-overdue premiere recording it emerges as strong and inventive stuff: though the idiom often recalls The Immortal Hour this is a darker, swifter, tragic score, more seamless in the way it moves from arioso to dialogue or from mood to mood.

Boughton apparently considered Hardy’s play an ideal opera libretto, and expanded it intelligently with several Hardy poems to create lyrical plateaus in an otherwise unrelievedly bleak drama. Yet Hardy’s characters are cardboard, his text (the poetic interludes apart) the worst cod-medieval fustian, knotted up with tortuous rhymes.

If you can ignore the words, the writing for both voices and orchestra has a surging confidence that’s very appealing, and the musical substance grows on one with repeated hearings.

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In a strong cast, Heather Shipp as the eponymous Queen and Joan Rodgers as the other Iseult stand out as authoritative characters. Jacques Imbrailo has almost too pleasant a voice as Tristan, considering he is torn between two women. But this is an admirably full-blooded performance. Calum MacDonald