T H E B R I T T E N C O N N E C T I O N
FIRST CONTACTS: BEGGAR’S OPERA, ALBERT HERRING & LUCRETIA
Rivalled only by Purcell and Elgar as the greatest of English composers, and in world terms one of the supreme creative figures of the 20th Century, Britten’s genius focused on vocal music.
Jennifer Vyvyan played an important role in the realisation of that music and its establishment in the repertoire - through 25 years, 9 leading operatic roles, and regular performances of works for voice and orchestra like Les Illuminations, Spring Symphony, Cantata Academica, and the War Requiem. Many of the performances were recorded, either commercially or for the BBC, and remain available on disc (for more, click on RECORDINGS).
Her first known contact with Britten appears in a diary entry for 26 Jan 1948 that notes an audition before him and Eric Crozier (stage director and fellow-director of the English Opera Group, founded the year before) at Wigmore Hall.
Peter Pears rehearsing Herring
||In 1949 she sang Bach cantatas at the Aldeburgh Festival, sharing the concert with Peter Pears. And for EOG she played the Female Chorus in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, with a company broadcast.|
A cousin of the new Queen Elizabeth II, it was Lord Harewood who suggested that Britten write an opera for her coronation in 1953. The piece was Gloriana, and it premiered 8th June at a Covent Garden royal gala whose audience had reservations about the dark, un-celebratory treatment of its heroine, the first Queen Elizabeth. So did the press. And the muted reception of what was expected to be a social and artistic triumph wounded Britten badly – although subsequent performances before a less ‘official’ audience were more warmly welcomed. According to witnesses including Vyvyan herself, one reason for the quiet applause on the opening night was the fact that everyone wore full court dress. Including gloves.
To view an interactive version of the programme for Gloriana at the Royal Opera Covent Garden 1953, click on the image below:
l to r, David Hillman, Sylvia Fisher, Edward Heath, Charles Mackerras & JV, onstage at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich
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Britten had postponed work on Turn of the Screw to finish Gloriana in time for the coronation. But when he finally got down to it, the score was composed at lightning speed, to crazily tight deadlines and with a telling upfront commendation: 'This opera was written for and is affectionately dedicated to those members of the English Opera Group who took part in the first performance'.
A letter from Britten to Vyvyan indicates that he had resolved to make this dedication the previous autumn, well before the compositional process began. And from the start she was his choice for the central role of the emotionally charged, fraught, tortured Governess. In fact it can be fairly said that the Screw turns around her voice and personality.
The immediate press response was mixed, with reservations about the subject matter, but singling out Vyvyan as ‘stupendous’.
On 11 February 1960 Jennifer Vyvyan was singing a performance of Britten’s Spring Symphony in Birmingham. Britten was conducting. And her diary entry for that day notes: ‘Saw Act 1 of new opera’.
The new opera was A Midsummer Night’s Dream which set Shakespeare’s text almost word for word (albeit with omissions) and was due to play in the refurbished but still cramped conditions of the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh that summer. After a BBC recording on 10 June, it opened the following night. And Vyvyan created the role of Tytania – which Britten eventually decided to spell with the archaic ‘y’, perhaps with reference to the ‘y’s that replace the ‘i’s in Vyvyan’s own name.
It had been with ‘i’ in a letter of 26 Oct 1959 which first suggests that Vyvyan should take the role – making the point that Britten has heard her voice ‘in everything that I’ve written so far’, and thanking her for enduring what were apparently the ‘difficult circumstances’ of the TV production of Turn of the Screw due for broadcast at the end of the year.
Alfred Deller and JV in Amsterdam
|A month after the premiere, the show travelled to Amsterdam with the same cast.|
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As things turned out, she never did sing that pivotal role for which she seemed destined. And it begs the question, why?
But several commentators, including Britten’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter, record a cooling of the relationship during the 1960s. John Amis, who had access to the Britten circle through his wife, the EOG violinist Olive Zorian, says that at one point Britten cut Vyvyan dead in the street.
If this is so, the broader evidence for it is equivocal. Britten was certainly demanding of his performers and could be fiercely critical. Vyvyan’s diary entry for 26 Sep 1955 includes a reference to being ‘bothered’ just before a London performance of the Screw by ‘Ben talking about intonation and stridency….Went wrong all night’.
But other entries tell a different story. On 5 October 1956 she writes: ‘Screw. Ben pleased’. And that seems to have been the more general response.
It’s interesting, though, that after the first run of Midsummer Night’s Dream in the summer of 1960, Vyvyan wasn’t engaged for the Covent Garden staging in February 1961. This may not be significant: there was a change of director (from John Cranko to John Gielgud), and changes throughout the cast, with Alfred Deller replaced by Russell Oberlin and no participation from Pears or Britten. And Vyvyan’s diary doesn’t suggest any resentment or animosity about her non-involvement. She goes to tea with Oberlin during his rehearsals. And on the opening night she watches the show from Britten’s box.
But it remains a fact that she took no part in any of the various stagings of the Dream that ran at Covent Garden through the rest of the 60s, and was missing from several others where her presence might have been expected. She wasn’t on the 1966 recording. When Dream played the 1967 Aldeburgh Festival in Colin Graham’s production, the Tytania was Margaret Price. And when that same production played Sadlers Wells, it was with Jenny Hill - a performance described in the Financial Times as having ‘neither the strangeness [nor] the poetry of Jennifer Vyvyan’.
Perhaps she was, in some way, out of favour through that period – either because Britten thought she wasn’t singing so well (and in the early 1960s she was certainly suffering a bad recurrence of the respiratory problems that plagued her career) or because, as one well-known musician of the time has suggested, she had become too closely involved with new operas by Malcolm Williamson.
Another possible reason could be that she had, like so many others, caused offence with unguarded remarks. Her diaries sometimes include light-hearted banter about homosexuality that might have been passed on. And there’s an entry for 17 Mar 1961 where she has been recording ‘Ben’s new Cantata [Academica] for L’Oiseaux Lyre, for 25gns. No one seemed particularly grateful. Owen, Helen and I went & drank gin to cheer ourselves up’. Maybe that was significant.
But she was nonetheless in Colin Graham’s production of The Dream when it toured various venues, including Aldeburgh, from the late 60s onwards. And the catalogue of her Aldeburgh Festival appearances gives no obvious indication of her being (as certain artists were at one time or another) frozen out.
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Britten’s penultimate opera was written specifically for television but recorded (at the composer’s insistence) on home territory, in a specially constructed set at Snape Maltings. The recording sessions took place in the autumn of 1970; and Vyvyan was there to create the role of Mrs Julian – an odd piece of casting in that it made her the mother of Janet Baker (playing Kate Julian) who was only 8 years her junior.
Vyvyan’s diary relates that she travelled to Snape on 31 October with her young son Jonathan in the car. On the way there he was sick, twice. And on arrival at Snape to view the set (which recreated a Jacobean mansion complete with haunted room) his presence ‘almost caused strike because of risk to J while they were putting heavy lighting stuff overhead’.
At this point in her career the triple burden of singing engagements, a small child, and a worsening bronchial condition was making itself felt. Between rehearsal sessions at Snape her diary notes that she ‘made nest in false passage to haunted room and tried to sleep. Difficult’.
Immediately after the TV recording, Wingrave was sound-recorded for Decca. The transmission went out the following spring, 16 May 1971. And the production was reworked for the stage at Covent Garden, opening May 1973. But by then, Vyvyan’s bronchial problems had increased and she withdrew from the cast, to be replaced by Janice Chapman.
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R A D I O 4 D O C U M E N T A R Y O N
J E N N I F E R V Y V Y A N :
O P E N I N G T H E B O X E S,
O R I G I N A L L Y B R O A D C A S T
T U E S D A Y A U G U S T 1 8 T H,
1 1 . 3 0 P M
When JJennifer Vyvyan died in 1974 she left behind a husband, a small son and an awful lot of stuff – which was put in boxes and stored in a loft for almost 40 years until it was re-examined and turned into the material for this website.
Opening the Boxes is a reflection on how all this happened. Presented by the music critic Michael White, who did the research and wrote the site, it features contributions from conductor Steuart Bedford, stage director John Copley, soprano April Cantelo, and Jennifer Vyvyan‘s son Jonathan Crown. Listen to the documentary on iPlayer here (may be up for a limited time).