The Cenci from within

Martin Anderson

The Cenci from within - Martin Anderson

I was commissioned to write an introductory article to The Cenci for the arts pages of The Independent. It was intended to act as a kind of taster to the opera, and might well have put a few more bums on seats; unfortunately, it was spiked when an unexpected advertisement had to be accommodated at the last minute. As part of my preparations I had made two brief interviews earlier in the week: with David Wilson-Johnson, to talk about his character, the evil Count Cenci, and with the conductor James Kelleher, to ask him about the opera in general. Their comments were too interesting to cast unread down the well after the article itself, and I have therefore transcribed them here.

David Wilson-Johnson on Francesco Cenci:

He is an extremely nasty piece of work. He’s got such a fantastic text to speak and sing. He’s obsessive. He’s a powerful man, absolutely corrupted by absolute power — but on this occasion he gets his just deserts. A bit of a problem (for him, certainly!), but the whole point of the piece is that he’s out of the way by the end of Scene IV and everyone else is left to pick up the bits.’

He could well be the foulest character in all of western literature. ‘I should think he probably is — which is why he is very attractive to a lot of opera composers. And quite a lot of opera managers seem to have quite similar emotions, especially at the moment!’

Is there no redeeming feature about Cenci at all? ‘I think there is. If he is going to be a thoroughly objectionable character, he’d be extremely boring to depict. The interest is in the slight glimmers of hope in the text: there are little moments when you think, "Ah, he’s got a sense of humour still", even if it is a deeply cynical one.’
A nd any hint of a residual humanity? ‘Oh, there was once. It’s still there as a basis for language and it’s in his experience, obviously, but it’s such a tortured and tortuous way of dealing with his experience. But that’s what makes him such an interesting character. There are countless Britten operas, for example, where there’s nothing but profoundly horrid characters in them…’

Characters like Claggart, for example? ‘Any of them, really. Peter Grimes, for God‘s sake! They're all hideous shits, but it becomes a powerful piece nonetheless, even though the audience can’t identify with any of them. I’m going to try to find some point on which to hang at least the audience’s sympathy or there’s no point in me being there. And one has to be very careful: you need some sort of sympathy from the audience for every character on stage, or you have cut out the potential for development. You need to start with some element of sympathy — and then you can abuse it (I’m all for abusing audiences!). You’ve got to get them on your side initially for them to feel abused, to feel affronted.’

In some of the text that Brian cut out it’s clear that Cenci is in the advanced stages of paranoia. ‘Yes, but I suppose many a royal dysfunctional has been — and probably still will be!’ (with which Wilson-Johnson’s knighthood flies out of the window).

What about Brian’s word-setting? ‘There are so few composers who actually write well for the English language.’

And Wilson-Johnson thinks Brian’s approach in The Cenci works quite well, even though he crams an enormous number of words into a musical phrase that barely allows time for them to be enunciated clearly? ‘Yes, I do. People obviously aren’t go to hear every single word, but that doesn’t matter in many ways — tell me the last opera in which you heard every single word. And certainly not at the ENO! In a way, it’s an ideal way to do it, in concert, so that people have the text in front of them. You can get the audience to use its nous for once!’

James Kelleher on conducting The Cenci_:_

What’s so special about this score? ‘It’s intensely dramatic. Not a lot of operas seem it. Much of the repertoire around the same period is more static and more thought is given to the music than to the actual drama. One of the things I find most compelling about this is that it is primarily a dramatic work. The scenes are short and very concise and they’ve each got their own colour. And they each allow time for these rather bizarre characters to develop. The colour of the orchestration is magnificent: it’s one of the most colourful scores of Brian’s — or of twentieth-century opera — that I’ve seen.’
Do dark colours predominate? ‘Not only dark. It’s the strange combinations of instruments that he uses, with very telling effect, like having a strumming pizzicato with just a tuba or flute, or little brass inserts to highlight the key words of a phrase. You can see that at the back of his mind — or probably at the front of his mind — is the dramatic story line. And it just seems to fit so coherently. There’s never a sense of "I’ve got to keep the tempo up here because otherwise the drama will lag" — it really just runs itself from beginning to end.’

How would James Kelleher characterise the opera for someone who didn’t know it? ‘Purple! In the sense that it’s extremely doom-laden. The Count is obviously seriously unhinged and perpetrates awful crimes and gets away with it because of the church being very corrupt and allowing all this. And there’s this sense of a Greek tragedy in that the events are inevitable: there’s no way that any of the characters involved, try though they may, can get out, so there’s this gripping sense of darkness about the whole thing. That doesn’t mean that it comes across as one of those German-expressionist very, very, dark scores: it’s got a lot of colour to it, but still the story is over-ridingly foreboding — forbidding, even.’

It’s such a grim story that the little touches of humour in the scoring stand out all the more effectively. In the Overture, for example, there are surprising evocations of courtly dances. ‘Yes, and there’s a lot of thematic use of material throughout the opera. And there are some incredible tunes. The big tune is the one on which Beatrice sings her farewell before execution. It’s a really stunning tune. It comes in the Overture and it’s hidden throughout the rest of the opera, so you know from the word go that her execution is only a matter of time. It’s a very haunting tune, and it appears at the end at this most telling moment, where you’ve just got one oboe, and four timpani, four people, playing this roll, a sustained chord, so there’s this rumble with her theme in the oboe, and she just speaks her words — she can’t sing any more. It ends in the strangest way. She’s being carted off to her execution and she starts adjusting her stepmother’s hair and tying it up for her, and it really is a very, very heart-rending moment. It’s one of the most moving ends of an opera that I have come across.’
A nd how tightly-woven thematically is the score as a whole? ‘Very. It’s not something that you necessarily notice on the surface. When you first listen to the opera, what you hear is the very dramatic story-line from the singers, good tunes in the voice parts and in the orchestra, and a lot of orchestral colour. It’s not until you’ve been through it several times that you appreciate that different bits are actually constructed using the same material. A lot of the same motifs and themes keep cropping up, which gives it a coherence from beginning to end that you wouldn’t get if it were just little splodges of colour.’ Even if you don’t consciously perceive it? ‘Exactly.’

When I spoke with James Kelleher over a drink after the HBS anniversary concert at St James’, he had told me that he hadn’t realised the Brian style was supposed to be ‘difficult': for him the music just fell off the page as he read it. Doesn’t he see the ‘dense’ style that commentators often attribute to Brian? ‘I have to say I don’t. The most dense I have found any of his music was when I did his Sixteenth Symphony, but it’s no denser than Sibelius Seventh, for instance, which is very, very tight. It’s of similar length and similar orchestration, and it has a similar motivic density. And the concert that I did with music from his opera Turandot was a joy. Again, it was extremely colourful. It was oriental in a way that wasn’t just making use of the pentatonic scale, but it had that flavour about it in a very subtle way. For me the music doesn’t really take a lot of getting used to, as people sometimes say with Brian. I find it much more immediately appealing and apparent, and I think that particularly with this opera people will find the same.’