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Perelandra - the Opera. Music by Donald Swann, Libretto by David Marsh

June 27th, 2009 (11:23 am)
current music: Divine Comedy: Duckworth-Lewis Method (Amazon preview only)

A muddle over dates prevented me from reaching the first of the 'second premiere's of Donald Swann and David Marsh's operatic adaptation of C.S. Lewis's second novel in the 'cosmic trilogy'; so the nineteenth-century high church environment of Keble College chapel was swapped for the interior of the Sheldonian Theatre, whose geometrically-conscious lines and incitement to look ever upward are perhaps closer to the theology of Edward Weston than Lewis's hero Elwin Ransome (apparently himself based on Tolkien). I'm no musician and hope those who are indulge me when I say I thought the Sheldonian helped produce a very round and deep sound appropriate for an opera concerned with the workings of Lewis's Deep Heaven.

The performances were extremely strong and I hope that the recording captures them. Neil Jenkins, as C.S. Lewis, and Rupert Forbes, as Colin 'Humphrey' Havard, were singing the same roles they did in 1964 and one wonders what their more youthful performances were like, given that it's difficult to imagine the parts being sung by a voice of a new vintage. The opening scene in Ransome's cottage and the earthly concerns of Lewis and particularly Humphrey - scientists in Lewis's scheme have severe problems with perceiving what's important in the universe - as contrasted with Ransome's recollection of Paradise is highly evocative of a now gone donnish world, reminding me very much of Ransome's worldview at the start of Out of the Silent Planet, and I wish that there had been a similar scene at the end of the final act; as it is the whole seems just a little unbalanced without a return to Earth.

One of the moving spirits for this revival was Leon Berger, Donald Swann's literary executor, who here sang Edward Weston, Ransome's antagonist from Out of the Silent Planet. Whereas Ransome travels to Perelandra by ethereal means, translated into 'spirit', Weston the physicist is reliant on a spacecraft and once on Perelandra (Venus in the conventional naming system) applies the same dimwitted imperialist categorization to what he finds; it would nonetheless have been moving to have heard his debate with Ransome over the nature of God performed, particularly as Weston's view owes something to eighteenth-century Deism; though Weston should have realised that this spirit 'thrusting ever upward' is perhaps trapped somewhere for good reason.

Musically Swann's melodic score should have found more champions than it did in the 1960s, offering as it could have done a bridge between the 'light music' of the cinema and afternoon concert and the 'serious' fare of the Third Programme; but as segh and G explained to me at the interval, no-one was interested at the time.

There are a lot of problems with Lewis's reworking of the Genesis Creation story, and I would need to read the book to understand more clearly; Ransome's sacrifice in killing the satanically-possessed Weston (and we have only the Devil's word that Weston's soul is lost) seems to provide a counterpoint to the serpent's successful temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden, and while the King and Queen of Perelandra seem to gain a new understanding of themselves that seems to be sexual, it's not clear how this affects their mortality or otherwise.


Posted by: Virgers! How are we doing with those explosives? (tree_and_leaf)
Posted at: June 27th, 2009 08:51 pm (UTC)

while the King and Queen of Perelandra seem to gain a new understanding of themselves that seems to be sexual, it's not clear how this affects their mortality or otherwise.

It doesn't. (& most mediaeval theologians were in agreement that there was, or would have been, human sexuality untainted by evil had the Fall not happened).

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 27th, 2009 08:53 pm (UTC)

Thanks for the clarification.