T H E   B R I T T E N   C O N N E C T I O N  

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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.





The result was a contract to sing Jenny Diver later the same year in an EOG tour of The Beggar’s Opera – a new realisation of the 1728 ballad score that Britten had just completed. Britten conducted; the cast was led by Peter Pears as Macheath; and the director was Tyrone Guthrie (whose withering dismissal of Pears’s ‘unmanly’ performance meant that Guthrie never worked with the Group again).


Opening in May in Cambridge, it toured around as EOG productions did: to various venues in the Holland Festival, to the recently created Cheltenham Festival, then Sadlers Wells, London, with a radio broadcast in September. And at just 23, with pre-Raphaelite good-looks, Vyvyan clearly made an impression in her otherwise modest role of a provocative young trollop


Also for the EOG, she sang Nancy in Britten’s Albert Herring - alongside Peter Pears and Joan Cross – touring to Cheltenham, Sadlers Wells, and with a substantial run at the People’s Palace in London’s Mile End Road. Ivan Clayton, a contemporary of the composer from their student days at the Royal College, shared the conducting with Britten himself. And Clayton would become an important figure in Vyvyan’s life, as a guide and mentor who (in her own words) ‘helped me form my musical taste’.


Peter Pears rehearsing Herring


Herring was an opera that would recur throughout her career as she progressed through different roles, from the young love-interest Nancy to the middle-aged Miss Wordsworth and eventually the ageing battle-axe Lady Billows.




 
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.
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GLORIANA


 
As her involvement with the EOG developed, Vyvyan was drawn into the circle of Britten’s chosen artists, and trips to Aldeburgh became a regular feature of her life.



Drinks on the terrace of Britten’s house on Crag Path, Aldeburgh. Lord Harewood (2nd left), JV (3rd left), Britten (2nd right)
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.

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To view an interactive version of the programme for Gloriana at the Royal Opera Covent Garden 1953, click on the image below:


 

 

 

Joan Cross took the lead, but with Vyvyan creating the significant seconda donna role of the fiery love-interest Lady Rich: a role she almost certainly inspired as much as she inhabited.

After the initial Covent Garden staging, by Basil Coleman, the show travelled to Rhodesia - but without Vyvyan, who had other commitments and resisted Britten’s entreaties that she was essential to the tour. Her part was taken by Joan Sutherland who, a year younger than Vyvyan, had just begun to take substantial solo roles at the Garden.

But Vyvyan returned to Lady Rich when the opera was given in concert at the Festival Hall for Britten’s 50th birthday, 22 November 1963. And she took the role again onstage when Britten revised the opera for a new Sadlers Wells production in October 1966 (director Colin Graham).

The production was revived, with Vyvyan still singing Lady Rich, in August 1972 - by which time the Sadlers Wells company had moved into the London Coliseum. The following month it toured as part of the cultural exchange events surrounding the Munich Olympics.


l to r, David Hillman, Sylvia Fisher, Edward Heath, Charles Mackerras & JV, onstage at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich


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TURN OF THE SCREW

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.


 

According to Vyvyan’s diary she collected her copy of the score on 24 Jun 1954, but that must have been the vocal reduction because Britten was still working on the full score a month later. After an initial London run-through, rehearsals began in Thorpeness, just up the coast from the Aldeburgh, on August 8th.


On Sep 7th she travelled with the cast to Venice, where the premiere took place at the Fenice Theatre as part of a music festival attached to the Venice Biennale on September 14th. Britten conducted, Basil Coleman directed. Designs were by John Piper. And the cast included Peter Pears, with David Hemmings (later to become a film star) as the boy Miles.

The immediate press response was mixed, with reservations about the subject matter, but singling out Vyvyan as ‘stupendous’.




The Times described her singing as 'a major triumph'. Reviewing a later, London performance, Neville Cardus in the Manchester Guardian praised it for the best acting he had ‘ever seen from English opera artists. Jennifer Vyvyan as the Governess brings to the part a grace, tenderness and natural ease of the period poise that make much of the opera not only amenable but even lovable’. The Times described her singing as a ‘major triumph’.




From then on, the Governess became Vyvyan’s trademark stage role, reprised in successive productions throughout the world. The Venice production came to London in October 1954, after a radio broadcast. The London premiere was accident-prone, with both Vyvyan and Pears suffering illnesses before the first night, and other mishaps. The Evening Standard thought it jinxed by its own ghostly narrative.




The following year it toured to Schwetzingen, Munich, Florence, Rotterdam, the Hague, Amsterdam, Bruges…as well as Aldeburgh, Cambridge and back to London.




Later years saw Vyvyan sing the Governess in Paris, Berlin, Edinburgh, and Canada as well as further London stagings.





There was also a landmark TV production, based on the original Venice staging but with addition designs by Piper to cover the orchestral interludes between scenes. It was the first time a Britten opera had been televised, and the first time any opera at all had appeared on independent TV – which perhaps explains why Britten was wary of the project. He handed over the conducting to Charles Mackerras, who had assisted on the touring shows. And Pears didn’t sing either, pleading prior engagements.
 

 
But it remained an EOG project, with the composer’s ultimate blessing, and was broadcast over Christmas 1959 – to what the TV director Peter Morely recounts in his memoirs as a viewing audience so low it failed to register on the standard measurement graphs (although subsequent research suggested just over 200,000 viewers: poor for TV but good for opera).
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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

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.





The premiere of the Dream had historic consequences that resulted from Britten’s decision to cast the countertenor Alfred Deller as Oberon: a decision that did much to restore the countertenor voice to common hearing. Within the context of the piece it helped establish an ethereal sound world for the fairies, as did the stage direction of John Cranko (a choreographer by background) and the fantasy designs of John Piper.





Alfred Deller and JV in Amsterdam
A month after the premiere, the show travelled to Amsterdam with the same cast.
And Vyvyan would later sing Tytania in a Colin Graham production with designs by Emanuele Luzzati that toured English venues 1969-71.




Graham’s staging also toured to Brussels…




…and to San Francisco, where the critic of the San Francisco Chronicle complained that he couldn’t hear the singing, except for Vyvyan who was ‘the strongest in all ways, in her pellucid soprano and pointed delivery, and the marvellous witchiness and sharply incised movements that gave an original tart slant to the role’.




A letter from Vyvyan to her husband records two San Francisco mishaps: one onstage, where ‘one of my older, rather dim fairies, with a heavy cold’ had to go on as Hippolyta’; the other offstage, where she was accosted after the show by ‘2 drunk or high black gents, who needled us about the war etc and were most unpleasant’. Fortunately, she could see the funny side of the experience.



 

 

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CONTINUING RELATIONSHIP WITH BRITTEN

A few months after the first international tour of Turn of the Screw, and shortly before the second, Britten sent Vyvyan a letter that makes telling comments about the title role in Peter Grimes. But with equal significance it adds that ‘one of my great wishes is to hear you sing Ellen some day’ – Ellen being the soprano lead in Grimes.

As things turned out, she never did sing that pivotal role for which she seemed destined. And it begs the question, why?

By the time of that letter in 1959 she was firmly established as a valued part of Britten’s musical world. Surviving correspondence through into the early ‘60s makes this clear:







More public statements make it clear as well:



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.

She took part in the 2nd Festival of 1949 and thereafter her Aldeburgh engagements ran fairly consistently through 1952, 53, 55, 57, 58, 60, 61, 64, 67, 68, and 69. Many of them were high-profile, ‘classic’ Aldeburgh events like a St John Passion in 1959 with Pears as Evangelist, Julian Bream lute, Britten harpsichord, Imogen Holst conducting; the UK premiere of Poulenc’s Mammelles de Tiresias in 1958; Gluck’s Orfeo in 1964; and the Purcell/Britten Fairy Queen in 1967 and 69 (recorded in 1970 for Decca).



 

Away from Aldeburgh she participated in the UK premiere of Britten’s Cantata Academica in 1961, and Britten’s 50th birthday celebration (a concert performance of Gloriana) at the Festival Hall in 1963. And her schedule reveals regular performances of the War Requiem and other Britten repertoire throughout the 60s – under the composer’s baton as well as those of major-league conductors like Giulini (Les Iluminations in England and Hungary) and Bernstein (Spring Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in the USA).

One of the last performances before her death in 1974 was a War Requiem at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon. And the lesson at her memorial service was read by Peter Pears. None of which suggests estrangement.


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OWEN WINGRAVE

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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