Fearful and monstrous

Martin Anderson

Fearful and monstrous - Martin Anderson

This was the introductory article destined never to appear in The Independent

On 9 September next year [ie 1998] it will be 400 years to the day since the murder of one of the most unpleasant characters humankind has yet thrown up. That was when, according to the eighteenth century Italian historian Ludovico Muratori, two hired assassins drove a nail through the brain of a Roman aristocrat, Count Francesco Cenci. And this year sees the 25th anniversary of the death of the English composer Havergal Brian, at the grand old age of 96 and in rather less dramatic circumstances. These facts are linked in the Queen Elizabeth Hall this evening, when the Havergal Brian Society presents the world premiere of The Cenci, the third of Brian’s five operas.
The Cenci sets the drama Shelley based on the ghastly, and true, history of the corrupt and depraved Cenci, a man of enormous wealth, which allowed him to buy pardons for repeated murders from an equally corrupt Pope. It was in 1819, in Rome, that Shelley came across a manuscript containing the "eminently fearful and monstrous" tale of Cenci’s systematic abuse and eventual rape of his daughter Beatrice who, pushed beyond her limits, arranged for her father to be killed (in Shelley’s source he was merely strangled); Beatrice, her step-mother Lucrezia and brother Giacomo, with no wealth to buy a pardon, were executed on papal orders.

Shelley then came across a portrait of Beatrice, drawn by Guido Reni in her condemned cell, and was struck by the blend of "energy and gentleness" expressed in the picture. He later visited the huge, heavy Cenci Palace, which he found desperately depressing. The contrast between the individual and the forces ranged against her struck a deep chord in the radical poet and the play was written that summer, in a matter of weeks.

Havergal Brian was 75 when, in 1951, he sat down to compose The Cenci, excising large parts of Shelley’s five act drama to bring it down to eight compact scenes but losing none of its primal horror. The dark, bass-heavy quality of Brian’s orchestral sound suits Shelley’s Gothic world perfectly; with long-legged writing for the brass and lower strings—and there cannot be another opera with such a grateful part for the tuba. The declamatory style of Brian’s word-setting, moreover, gives the work a kind of hieratic dignity that belies its gruesome subject. The combination gives this opera an immediacy that few others have achieved. _The Cenci_has waited nearly half a century to be heard, but now ought to be able to take its place as one of the major achievements in twentieth-century music.

Tonight’s performance is being conducted by James Kelleher, at the head of the Millennium Sinfonia and a strong cast, chief among them David Wilson-Johnson as Count Francesco Cenci, Helen Field as Beatrice, Inga Jonsdottir as Lucrezia and Stuart Kale as the plotting cleric Camillo. Kelleher is infectiously enthusiastic about The Cenci. "It’s intensely dramatic. The scenes are short, very concise. They’ve each got their own colour and they allow time for these rather bizarre characters to develop. The orchestration is magnificent: it’s one of the most colourful scores in twentieth-century opera. He uses strange combinations of instruments to very telling effect: strumming pizzicatos with just tuba and flute, or little brass inserts to highlight the key words of a phrase. The story-line is always at the front of his mind - and it all seems to fit so coherently. You never feel you have to keep the tempo up in case the drama lags: it just runs itself from beginning to end.
"It’s a purple opera, in the sense that it is so doom-laden. The Count is seriously unhinged and perpetrates awful crimes and gets away with it because the Church is so corrupt. And it’s like a Greek tragedy, in that these events are inevitable: there’s no way that any of the characters involved can get out, so there’s this gripping sense of darkness about the whole thing. But it doesn’t come across as one of those heavy, German Expressionist scores: it has a lot of light and colour to it, even if the story is overridingly foreboding, forbidding.

There are also some incredible tunes: the big tune on which Beatrice sings her farewell before her execution is stunning. It comes in the overture and is hidden throughout the opera, so you know from the word go that her execution is only a matter of time. It ends with an oboe playing her tune, over a sustained chord with four people playing the timpani; she just speaks her words since she can’t sing any more. It’s one of the most moving ends to an opera that I’ve come across.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone putting in a good word for the baleful personality of Francesco Cenci - multiple murderer, paranoid psychopath, rapist - whose incestuous ambitions dominate the first half of the opera. But David Wilson Johnson, who sings the role of the count tonight, comes to his defence. "He’s an extremely nasty piece of work. A powerful man, obsessive, absolutely corrupted by absolute power.

But he’s got such a fantastic text to speak and sing. And if he were just profoundly horrid, he’d be boring to depict. The interest is in the slight glimmers of hope: in the text there are little moments when you think he’s got a sense of humour still, even though it’s a deeply cynical one. That’s what makes him such an interesting character. I’m going to try to find some point on which to hang the audience’s sympathy: you’ve got to get them on your side initially. And after all, there has been many a royal dysfunctional and still will be."