"The Dark, Mad Side"

Classic Arts Features   "The Dark, Mad Side"
Daniel Felsenfeld reveals how the chilling delights of Richard Rodney Bennett's Gothic shocker The Mines of Sulphur echo his scores for films such as Indiscreet. The opera comes to New York City Opera this month.

The Mines of Sulphur is a page-turner, a barn-burner, a gothic shocker if there ever was one. Think Edgar Allan Poe, think Alfred Hitchcock, think Agatha Christie. Its roller-coaster-like excitement begins with screenwriter Beverley Cross' libretto‹a fast-paced story of murder, thwarted flight, and a crew of itinerant theatricals‹to which composer Richard Rodney Bennett was exceedingly well matched. His experience as the composer of many film scores serves him splendidly in Mines, as he manages to capture clearly every twist and turn of this ripping yarn about an enslaved Gypsy needing her freedom, whatever the price. The plot clips along at an excellent pace in the libretto, but it is the music that causes it to seethe, snap, snarl, and ultimately to shock.

The plot revolves around this Gypsy, Rosalind, who has been sold into slavery to the abusive Lord Braxton (his first lines call her a "slut"). She is freed by two ne'er-do-wells: the army deserter Boconnion and his sidekick, Tovey, a tramp. These two break into Braxton's manor house, intent on pinching the rich man's jewels, but the scuffle ends in Braxton's death. As fate would have it, a traveling troupe of actors descends on the house at that freighted moment, seeking shelter from the cold outside. Boconnion, now officially in charge, agrees to allow them to stay on the condition that they perform for their amusement. Sherrin, the leader of the rogue troupe, suggests a play from their repertoire called The Mines of Sulphur. The similarities between the fictive and actual bloodshed that has just taken place are too chilling for Boconnion, however. To outline the plot any further would be a spoiler. The ending is just too juicy to give away.

Bennett cut his dramatic teeth as a film composer, most famously for Stanley Donen's Indiscreet (1958) with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, so he knew how use music to pace the action of a thriller. And he had always been fascinated by, as he stated, "...the dark, mad side of English poetry, by Donne, Webster, Tom o' Bedlam's Song, much Shakespeare. This story seemed to come from that haunted world." British stage director Colin Graham suggested that Bennett read Beverley Cross' one-act play Scarlet Ribbons, with the thought of setting it as an opera. Bennett cottoned to it immediately. He was no stranger to the operatic form, having already composed the one-act The Ledge in 1961, but he had yet to tackle an evening-length stage work. He immediately set to work on the new piece, a commission from the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk, England (founded and run by his countryman Benjamin Britten, this work's dedicatee). But time constraints prevented the work from premiering at the festival. Instead, The Mines of Sulphur was first performed‹to great critical and box-office success‹by London's Sadler's Wells Company on February 24, 1965.

When selecting the sound palette for this work, Bennett used two seemingly polar techniques‹non-tonal and tonal, a contrast perfect for expressing the tension of the developing plot and the chilling atmosphere of the ill-fated manor house in the West Country. The first of these distinct musical realms creates a frenetic, chromatic, ricocheting bite (though not without moments of quiet beauty) to match the principal story of invasion, fear, tension, and murder. Bennett employs another, slightly more archaic, sound world (though never obvious pastiche), which hints at faux-Baroque, to match the "play within the play." For the former, the orchestra is a mighty, forceful single unit, unrelenting and psychologically fraught in the beginning, and terrifyingly absent toward the work's end, as all the characters' secrets are revealed. For the theater troupe's performance, Bennett lends the work an intimate chamber-music-like sound (complete with harpsichord), offering a lighter touch, with references to conventional keys, scales, and melodies. Eventually, as the action demands, these two musical worlds come together in a lurid tour de force.

The most fascinating aspect of this score is the maze of character-specific detail it encompasses; every bit of The Mines of Sulphur's plot is right there in the notes as well as in the text. Opera is, with few exceptions, a place where grand emotions are writ extra-large upon the stage‹something Bennett handles with an expert hand throughout. Within this format, however, he manages some deft, subtle touches. The Gypsy Rosalind, for example, of whom the composer seems especially fond (making it easier for us listeners to be captivated by her as well), is a character whose desire to flee is her undoing, her tragic flaw, and Bennett builds her a distinct musical world, set apart from the rest of the score, subtly encapsulating her desire. Lush, broadly scored unison string chords outline the plaintive, sad nature of her longing, but it is the plangent solo oboe that speaks for her above all. Listen for it, as it will break your heart. In a spoken play, such a desire can be obvious; in opera, it can be magnetic, tragic.

And this is merely one example in an evening-length treasure chest of such moments: the thrilling, opulent texture of the lightly scored duet at the end of Act I between Rosalind and Jenny, the actress, where Bennett surrounds his "folk" melody with simple strings and a solo flute, reminiscent of Rosalind's dreaming music (mentioned above), but with a slight variation. The sheer violence and voracity of the music accompanying the entrance of the drifter, Boconnion, speaks volumes: about his personality, his rough-and-tumble sexiness, and the edgy unpredictability that threatens to, and eventu-ally does, spin out of control. And the grotesque bleakness of the opera's conclusion‹the final, terrifying revelation‹is scored sparsely, to an edge-of-your-seat ending.

Bennett's mastery of text-setting ensures that no detail of The Mines of Sulphur is lost. He never writes notes that strain the singers' ability on a portion of a word which needs to be understood. Bennett's prosody also, for the most part, manages to mirror speech; even when the British-accented vocal lines seem disjointed and jagged, they communicate the reality of the text‹a reality which, too, can be disjointed and jagged.

What is perhaps most striking, most pleasing, about The Mines of Sulphur is its sheer playability. This is a story which moves along at a shocking clip, with twists, turns, wheels-within-wheels, and a goose-bump ending‹a plot that any Dorothy Sayers or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be proud to have penned. Yes, the work deals with large-scale human issues like fear, class-consciousness, and the common operatic notion of a violent end coming to someone who tries to improperly rise above his station. But these ideas are presented in a context that transcends these universals; at every possible turn, Bennett's music communicates and thrills, allowing us to truly experience the horror, heartbreak, and hauntings within the opera's intriguing world.

Daniel Felsenfeld is a New York-based composer and writer. His works have been performed at The Kitchen and as part of NYCO's VOX 2004: Showcasing American Composers series. His books Copland and Ives: A Listener's Guide and Britten and Barber: Their Lives, Their Music are published by Amadeus Press.

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