Reinventing a Classic: 'A Village Romeo and Juliet'

WOO-1250-RomeoJuliet-300In 2013, the world will celebrate a great operatic anniversary: the 200th birthday of Giuseppe Verdi. But as it happens, there's another opera composer who reached a similar milestone just a bit earlier. The year 2012 marks the 150th birthday of Frederick Delius -- who wrote the opera featured here this week.

Delius has been called the quintessential English composer. Yet both he and his music were actually quite cosmopolitan. Delius's parents both came from Germany, but they had taken British citizenship by the time the composer was born, in the town of Bradford, in 1862.

His father was a successful wool merchant, and hoped his son would eventually take over the business. But the young Frederick soon displayed a decided wanderlust. He travelled in Sweden and France, spending time on the riviera. In Norway Delius met Edvard Grieg, who remained a close friend, and that country's mountains and fjords became a sort of spiritual home for the composer.

In his early twenties, he found an actual home in another, very different locale, even farther from the moors of his native Yorkshire. For a time, during the 1880s, Delius ran an orange plantation in Solana Grove, Florida -- an experience that inspired the Florida Suite, one of his many, evocative orchestral scores.

Delius also wrote six operas. And, given his travels, it's not surprising that they display a wide range of subject matter. One, called Koanga, was inspired by an African-American slave song. Another, The Magic Fountain, represents the Native American culture of Florida.

A Village Romeo and Juliet, his best-known opera, is based on a German short story. Its world premiere, which was sung in German, took place in Berlin, in 1907. The original English version, featured in this production from Wexford, was performed at the opera's London premiere, at Covent Garden, in 1910.

Many of Delius's works explore a theme that fascinated the composer throughout his career: the transience of human experience and the brevity of life itself. It's heard in his famous song cycle "Songs of Sunset," which he originally called "Songs of Twilight and Sadness."

Yet the composer's exploration of those ideas never found more vivid, or poignant expression than in his unique, operatic take on the traditional story of Romeo and Juliet -- in which two troubled young lovers decide that a single day of happiness is enough to last an entire, all too brief lifetime.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents A Village Romeo and Juliet from the Wexford Opera Festival, on the southeast coast of Ireland -- an event known for its exceptional productions of unusual and neglected operas. The stars are tenor John Belleford and soprano Jessica Muirhead as the lovers Sali and Vreli, with conductor Rory MacDonald.