Anybody interested in English song will know the Shropshire town of Ludlow as the place where “lads in their hundreds … come in for the fair”, as they do in the famous setting of AE Housman’s poem by George Butterworth.
It’s a song whose jaunty rhythms camouflage a dreadful truth: that many of these lads are off to war and won’t come back, destined to die in the unfaded glory of their youth. And the degree to which the poet revels in their pending deaths (it’s tantamount to necrophilia) is a test of good taste in performances. A test that Roderick Williams, everybody’s favourite British baritone, passed unequivocally in a recital for this year’s Hampstead Arts Festival.
It was yet another programme given over to the poetry and music of the First World War – of which there are no end – but stood out because Williams does this repertoire better than anyone I know. His personality is warm, his voice is handsome. And for all his good taste, he delivers text with a dramatic vividness. Singing the Ludlow song, it came to life – and we were there, watching those lads carousing in the taverns with no thought of the mortality that Housman sees and Butterworth turns into music.
As it happens, I was actually there in Ludlow last week, not carousing in the taverns but experiencing the latest show by Mid Wales Opera: an impressively resourceful company that tours small-scale productions around modest venues within Wales and the Welsh borders. Hence its one-night stand in Ludlow, with a staging of Ravel’s L’heure espagnol in the unlikely context of the parish church, St Laurence’s.
This Spanish Hour, as it translates, is not a work of spiritual substance: it’s a comedy about a Latin temptress entertaining lovers when her husband is away. And it could easily be slapstick were it not for the refinement of Ravel’s score, which transforms potential earthiness into sophistication, elegance and charm.
It felt a touch odd in a mediaeval church with an embroidered banner of St Laurence brandishing his martyr’s gridiron in full view. But the production, by director Richard Studer, was as decorously sharp as Ravel’s music, working wonders with a simple, stylishly inventive set. The cast were of surprising quality for small-scale touring opera. And the little orchestra was magical, playing a cleverly reduced edition of the score by Jonathan Lyness, who conducted.
Opera often gets a bad press as an opulent, expensive and elitist venture. But a show like this is proof it can be otherwise. I don’t say Mid Wales Opera is a match for Covent Garden, but it’s differently good. And doing sterling work in places Covent Garden wouldn’t know existed.