AT THE BOAR’S HEAD
A musical interlude in one act
The libretto taken from Shakespeare’s King Henry IV
The music, founded on old English melodies, by Gustav Holst (Op. 42)
First performed: Palace Theatre, Manchester, 3 April 1925
The idea for At the Boar’s Head came to Holst while he was recuperating from an illness. He realized that a morris dance tune fitted a line in Henry IV, and decided to set the Falstaff scenes to folk music, with an old drinking song, a couple of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and a ballad to stretch out the piece.
It’s easy to dismiss the opera as an intellectual exercise in skill. Critics took it that way; they were nonplussed when the opera premièred, in a double bill with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, and panned it. Even his daughter Imogen called the work “a brilliant failure”, a surfeit of rich Shakespearean text and contrapuntal ingenuity.
Does it work as an opera, though? Ay, there’s the rub. The work is a “musical interlude” – an anecdote, rather than a fully-fledged drama with a beginning, middle, and end. Holst takes several scenes and runs them together to form a 50-minute block. The result is slower than their Shakespearean equivalents, and so lack some of the fire and brilliance of Falstaffian wit. The larger context of Shakespeare’s play is missing; the Boar’s Head scenes are meant to contrast with the serious drama, and be comic relief to the high politics and battles of Henry IV’s troubled reign. Holst also expects his audience to have a working knowledge of the Henriad. Would it appeal to someone who isn’t a Bardolater?
And yet (to this Shakespeare enthusiast, at least) the piece is engaging. Holst can use Shakespeare’s language, which Nicolai and Verdi, in their German and Italian operas, couldn’t. Our sympathies are very much with Falstaff, who is the authentic Falstaff, rather than the caricature of The Merry Wives of Windsor and its operatic versions. This isn’t a fat old man who’s easily duped by a couple of village gossips, a figure of knockabout fun, but Falstaff the master of language, prodigiously witty and a source of wit in others, yet also a touching old man devoted to the prince he loves as a son and who will abandon him.
Holsts treats the songs skillfully, although he occasionally stretches or distorts the meter of the text. The counterpoint is clever, particularly when Prince Hal, pretending to be a drawer (a tavern servant), sings Sonnet 19 (“Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws”), and Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet, irked by the sonnet’s theme of ruinous age, launch into a boisterous rendition of “When Arthur first in court”. There’s an impressive soldiers’ chorus (“Lord Willoughby”) leading into a five part ensemble (“Then courage, noble Englishmen, and never be dismayed”) and a rousing tenor line for the Prince (“God and St George for England! Be ours the victory…”).
A listener should enjoy this, so long as he doesn’t expect the orchestral fireworks of the Planets.
THE WANDERING SCHOLAR
A chamber opera in one act
Music by Gustav Holst
Libretto by Clifford Bax
Founded on an incident in Helen Waddell’s “The Wandering Scholars”
First performed: David Lewis Theatre, Liverpool, 31 January 1934
I’m less keen, though, on The Wandering Scholar, Holst’s last opera. This tiny chamber opera (24 minutes long) was performed a few months before Holst’s death, but he was too ill to revise the score, which was not published until 1971, in an edition by Britten. It’s based on a mediaeval story about a poor scholar who surprises a farmwife and her priest at non-clerical activities, is turned away from the door hungry, and gets his revenge. It’s musically thin, bar Alison’s “When rainbows follow flying showers”. The story is rather disagreeable to a modern audience; we no longer find domestic violence amusing.
Both operas are available on a CD from EMI:
- At the Boar’s Head, with Philip Langridge as Prince Hal, JOhn Tomlinson as Falstaff, Elise Ross as Mistress Quickly, and Felicity Palmer as Doll Tearsheet, with the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by David Atherton.
- The Wandering Scholar, with Michael Rippon as Louis, Norma Burrowes as Alison, Michael Langdon as Father Philippe, and Robert Tear as Pierre, with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford.