Dr. Joseph Parry: Blodwen (1878)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes.

Maybe, in honor of my 365th review (!) I should retitle this blog “Phil’s Opera Exoticon”, I keep feeling like I have to push the limits of operatic rarity further and further here like I am creating the blog equivalent of Tristan und Isolde. That being said, it is always fun for me to 1) review operas 2) use my historical training to inform all of you about the background of these operas (and the history and legends/cultural backgrounds that go into their plots), 3) see how far I can go multiculturally into the genre of opera itself. And now, I have one review for every day of the year!

The name of the titular heroine can be translated to “White Flower”, blodyn being the Welsh for “flower” and related to the English word “blossom”. It is basically exactly what you would think a Welsh opera would be like if you ever thought about what an opera in Welsh would be (if one has such thoughts, which I probably doubt for most people): set during a 15th century war between the Welsh and the English with two contrasting love stories, one ending in tragedy, the other in a happy reunion. This was the first opera written in Welsh, so I guess we can add Welsh now to our list of languages here on Phil’s Opera World! Generally speaking it has been written off as a pastiche of Italian opera (particularly Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi) sung in Welsh although with strong influence from Welsh folk melodies, and no more than an odd historical footnote, if at all, otherwise. The composer was a member of the faculty of the University College of Wales, who, during his teenage years, actually lived in Pennsylvania. The work had a relatively successful run of 500 performances in Wales between 1878 and 1896 when it essentially disappeared until it was recorded 1978 for the Menai Music Festival with a réorchestration (this has since been released in LP and CD formats). It has since been performed in Wales in 2016 and in Billings, Montana, United States, in 2019 (the performance being reviewed here). However, the second act love duet Hywel a Blodwen remains one of the most popular pieces of native-Welsh classical music in Wales itself and the opera is somewhat notable for a number of tenor arias which remain popular with Welsh professional tenors, especially that of the final prison scene. Although the opera has suffered from mostly amateur productions, and the score really comes close to ballad opera (it is through-composed, but most of the opera consists of one aria after another almost like a revival of 18th century opera seria), I still think that there is something here. Although Parry wrote nine other operas, of which five exist as never performed manuscripts in the National Archive of Wales, four performed, and one left incomplete, Blodwen was his only opera which achieved success at any level, and as far as I know the only one recorded in full.

A copy of the score, in English and Welsh, is available through Petrucci Library which I used to make sense of the Welsh libretto (it is also where I got all of the Welsh tract listings since regarding Welsh I haven’t a clue).

https://imslp.org/wiki/Blodwen,Op.31(Parry,_Joseph)

SETTING: Wales, Winter of 1413 (Henry IV of England died 20 March, 1413, and his death is the reason for the ending of this opera, although the Welsh revolt under Owain Glyndwr started a decade earlier and did not end until 1315) . Blodwen (soprano) is the daughter of Rhys Gwyn (bass, spoiler alert! although believed to have died in battle 20 years earlier), and lives with Sir Hywel Ddu (tenor, pronounce Dee, don’t ask, it is Welsh) as his adopted daughter, although they are in love with each other, so…. Anyway, they are attending the wedding of Arthur of Berwyn (baritone) to Ellen (soprano), daughter of Lady Maelor (contralto), at the Maelor Castle, when war is declared between Wales and England (of course). Iolo (bass) a minstrel, is also an important character throughout the opera for his predictions, although I will not reveal the rest of the plot until we get into act three because of the spoilers. Apart from the final scene, set in the prison of Chester Castle, the entire opera is set in and around Maelor Castle.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (53 minutes)

0: The nine minute long overture * betrays its influences (especially Bellini). It is actually a very serviceable piece, starting on an E-chord and proceeding into some adagio work for the woodwinds and strings. It quickly changes over to allegro in a section which is obviously influenced by the overture to Norma. It then moves to a mildly military theme, then something a bit more sinister, a mild climax, more sinister, descending scales, more military and sinister mixed with more Norma, and then finally building towards the final gallop (which is more obviously Donizetti).

Scene 1: A hall in Maelor Castle.

10: Syr Hywel or Wyddfa After we get some plot background about the arrival of Blodwen and Hywel from the Messenger (a tenor, although the part is written in bass clef), Lady Maelor has a rather glorious aria *** in two verses 1) excitement at the arrival of the wedding guests, and 2) a prayer, expressing her hope that there will be peace in Wales and blessings for her daughter Ellen and Arthur (her prayer mostly goes unheeded by the Almighty). It is mostly influenced by Donizetti and middle Verdi. The vocal range is only an octave (Eb to Eb) but the melody is extremely catchy and it is by far the number I have most repeatedly listened to since. It is followed by a Welsh bridal song which will be repeated at the end of the scene during the tableau change. The song is about beautifying Ellen’s chambers with flowers (Lillies, Roses etc.).

17: Ys brydion y dewrion Iolo the Bard arrives to give Lady Maelor predictions of the future * (none of these follow through, but nevertheless the scene is fine).

22: O gartref yr Eryr y daethom min dau A messenger arrives, this time a tenor, who brings news that Blodwen and Hywel are about to arrive in an brief arietta which is received by Lady Maelor. Hywel arrives with Blodwen in a unison duet ** (the opening of which sounds a lot like the Union American Civil War song “Rally Round the Flag”, particularly when Miriam Hopkins croaked it in 1940’s Virginia City). The tenor dominates the number, as they mutually admit that their home, Castle Snowden, is a place where all sorrow is banished.

26: Rwy’n gwybob dy hanes Lady Maelor (to her earlier theme) tells Blodwen that if she needs to leave Hywel that she can live with her at Castle Maelor, for Lady Maelor knew her father Rhys Gwyn. Hywel agrees that, given the coming war with England, that Blodwen should live with Lady Maelor. Parry pulls off at least two musical cliches here including a variant of the Golden Melody as well as some Italian bel canto parody for Hywel before we get into the quartet proper **. The Welsh bridal song ends the scene.

Scene 2: The wedding.

32: Un blodeuglwm o bleserau Blodwen presents Ellen with a bouquet of flowers as she goes in to the ceremony. It has a very high tessitura (going up to high B). It has a pretty melody *, if a bit derivative, and the high Bs seem a bit difficult for the soprano).

36: Yng ngwyneb y Nef A Monk marries Ellen and Arthur *.

39: Cydfloeddiwn, cyfloeddiwn The Wedding Waltz **, the melody will be recognizable to anyone who has seen a number of 1930s MGM period films. Interesting to hear it in original context as before this I did not know where it came from.

44: Cyd la wenhawn am The bridal duet ** Ellen-Arthur is straight out of Rossini, complete with horn and flute ornaments and vocal coloratura for both soprano and baritone.

49: Y enw Harri Ddewr Loegr bell An English messenger arrives with demands from King Henry IV for the keys to Maelor Castle*. Oddly, this is one of the best set vocal lines in the opera, especially considering that the role consists of less than a minute of music. The frequent high Fs are particularly noteworthy. He is spurred off by Lady Maelor. The chorus takes the act to its conclusion.

ACT 2: (48 minutes)

Scene 1: Outside Maelor Castle, the Morning of a Hunt.

0: The prelude * starts off with some hunting horns moving into a more jovial tune

3: Mae’r haul yn codi dros y bryn The four-part Huntsmen’s Chorus **, a cappella, an extra star for that.

6: Mae seren ofnadwy Iolo reads doom in the stars and planets *.

7: Tra byddo yr helwyr yn hela Hywel comes on, at first describing the hunt, then his love for Blodwen (yet unspoken) **.

13: Hywel be ti’n geisio yma Although marked as a solo, and starting as a solo for Blodwen, this number quickly turns into a mildly Verdian love duet **.

17: ‘R wy’n cofio’r adeg ddedwydd Pan own Lady Maelor remembers when she was a young woman in love and compares this to Blodwen *. A messenger arrives with news that King Henry has declared war on Wales. The scene ends, somewhat ironically, as it began, with a repeat of the Huntsmen Chorus.

Scene 2: A hall in Maelor Castle.

23: Mae Cymru’n baron ar Hywel and Arthur embark on a martial duet ** as they prepare for battle. The spirit which stopped the Roman legions will stop the English (not sure where this is coming from since the Welsh are half-Roman in ancestry).

30: Mae swn rhyfel yn y gwynt Another male warrior chorus *.

32: Ffarwel, Arthur! A quartet (actually two arias and a duet) as Ellen and Blodwen pin white ribbons on Arthur and Hywel respectively. The boys give portraits to the two women. A very sober number **.

37: I’r gad! I’r gad! I’r gad! The scene ends with the Welshmen going off to battle the dreadful Anglo-Saxons **.

Scene 3: Lady Maelor’s chambers.

43: Mae Harri a’i fyddinoedd The Messenger arrives with news that Arthur has struck down ten battalions of Saxon soldiers. Iolo arrives with the one prediction of his which comes true *: “Encourage Blodwen and comfort Ellen”, for Blodwen will be restored to her position, and Ellen will fall into despair. Apparently he has been reading the Magnificat. The scene lacks the dramatic intelligence it needs.

ACT 3: (44 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the cattle.

0: Mae mywyd bron a rhedeg The act starts en media res with Arthur mortally wounded and thinking of Ellen * (yes, Iolo’s prophecy has already come to pass within bars of his making it). It is not as good as it could be. The Arthur-Ellen duet (really a second aria for Arthur framed by an interjection from Ellen) mostly continues this.

4: Taenwn float ar y galon The Death March has slightly more dramatic power * although the happy little bit from Blodwen is a little reprehensible.

Scene 2: Lady Maelor’s Apartments.

10: O dywed im’awel After a lot of plot forwarding recitative to the effect that the war has turned in favor of the English (is anyone surprised?), and that Hywel is not known to be either dead or alive for the moment, but many of the Welsh leaders have already been executed by the English, Blodwen has perhaps one of the few genuinely grown up arias in the piece as she asks the breezes of the mountains to take her prayer to Hywel ***.

13: Breuddwydiais i weithiwr Lady Maelor comes on after a horrible nightmare *. Lots of bloody battlefield doings are stopped by the arrival of Iolo with news that Hywel is alive, but imprisoned and awaiting execution at Chester Castle. The scene ends darkly.

Scene 3: The Prison of Chester Castle.

19: Chwibanu rhyddion odlau The best choral sequence in the entire opera ***: an eight-minute long, four part canon prayer of the prisoners as they petition for release from their chains.

27: Fy Mlodwen f’anwylyd The strongest of the tenor arias (a favorite among Welsh tenors) *** as Hywel awaiting execution at dawn, bits farewell to Blodwen. A duet between Lady Maelor and Iolo about Welsh historical heroes has been cut at this point.

33: Cenwch y clychau A happy ensemble with chorus as a mysterious stranger appears *. This is Rhys Gwyn and he is looking for Hywel. Lady Maelor instantly realizes that he is Blodwen’s father and he is alive! Blodwen is of course overjoyed, although believing that Hywel is soon to be executed. (Question: Where has Rhys Gwyn been all these 20 years while Blodwen was living with Hywel?!?). Well, he explains that: now that King Henry is dead, he (Gwyn) has been released from prison after 20 years!), also, Hywel will not be executed.

39: Moliannwn The opera ends with another choral canon sequence (based on a Welsh tune called “Men of Harlech”) in praise of G-d and blessings for Blodwen and Hywel ***.

COMMENTS:

Okay, so the score does lack any sense of originality. Yet again, that also is not its purpose. This is the first opera written in Welsh, not the first bel canto opera. The stop and go nature of the score gives the entire work more of a concert effect, although unlike with a concert, there is an obvious narrative storyline going on here, albeit brief. The result does mean that the plot moves slowly, and the characters become static in most instances, even if the music they are singing is undeniably pretty. Rarely do characters sing at the same time, when they do they are usually singing at the same time, with the same words, and either on the same notes or in close harmonizations. As for dramatic power, although the story certainly has most of the elements needed for a compelling experience: ethnic conflict, mystery, a lot of death and tragic loss in war, two love stories, albeit the tragic one is not developed properly, it lacks the most important: the score is unable to fully grasp its theatrical potential, it simply is not dramatic enough. The one exception to this are the choral numbers in the final scene, which prove that Parry as a composer had greater potential than what the sum of the parts of this opera demonstrate (although they are strongly based on liturgical music).

As for the production. I have to commend the six male chorus members, they probably put in more work than anyone else with such limited vocal resources. Of the soloists, the Hywel, Arthur, and Lady Maelor (although for Lady Maelor, how could she not be noticed with that wonderful opening aria? funny how Parry bestowed possibly his best tune on the contralto?) are the strongest, although the Ellen has the most powerful range. Frankly the Ellen and the Blodwen should have been switched unless the conductor was looking for a more mellow and shy singer to sing the title role (she does convey vulnerability well). The orchestra did derail a couple of times, particularly in act two. The characters of Ellen and Arthur should be more built up than they are, which can make Lady Maelor seem odd as she pays far more attention to Blodwen than to her own daughter, who is married and widowed in the span of a single act! If Ellen had committed suicide (or died of grief) following the death of Arthur then Lady Maelor’s actions in the last two scenes where she is preoccupied with things Blodwen would make more sense, but as they stand it seems odd that she has become so unconcerned with her own domestic affairs.

Although most of the score rates gamma, the plot (albeit a bit defuse) is stronger (it could actually make for a rather good movie if one threw in some battle scenes) and there are moments in the score which do rise to near greatness, and so, a beta.

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