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Roger Scruton - Violet


Guildhall School of Music & Drama

01 December 2005

Conductor – Clive Timms

Director – Tess Gibbs



Violet – Joana Seara

Gordon Woodhouse – Oliver Kuusik

Max Labouchere – Iestyn Morris

Bill Barrington – David Stout

Dennis Tollemache – Celeste Lazarenko

Jessica – Lenia Safiropoulou

Ethyl Smyth – Edmund Connolly (acted by Tom Oldham)

Auctioneer – David Stout (acted by Tom Oldham)

Auctioneer's Assistant / Houghton – Gareth John

The Misses Woodhouse – Verity Parker & Helen Evora


Roger Scruton's new opera Violet received its premiere in two semi-staged concert performances at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, whose students provided the cast and chamber orchestra.


The work is based on Jessica Douglas-Home's account of the life and loves of her great-aunt Violet Gordon Woodhouse who was an accomplished musician, equally proficient on harpsichord, clavichord and virginal, as well as being the hub of an extraordinary coterie of devoted admirers.


The libretto has been skilfully extracted by Roger Scruton and given an intelligent dramatic shape. The curtain rises at Nether Lypiatt, Violet's country home in Gloucestershire which some has been preserved with all her furnishings and belongings for a period of more than twenty years since her death. Now it must be sold, and the auctioneers are itemising the various lots. Her niece Jessica is faced with the difficult task of going through Violet's most personal mementos, which are contained in her reputedly haunted Music Room. As Jessica examines diaries and letters, characters from the past begin to appear in a series of vignettes.


Firstly Violet, newly married and setting up her salon in London . Music is the big love of her life but she has the capacity of attracting both men and women and winning their complete dedication. Gradually the men who are to make up her ménage a cinq appear and settle in: her husband Gordon ever practical and solicitous, dearest Bill Barrington , Max Labouchere with and man about town and Denis Tollmache the only one to share her musical awareness. Ethel Smythe remains an outsider, somewhat ridiculed in her attempts to command Violet's affections.


Violet's musical stature grows and matures, and life in the country is idyllic until the Great War breaks out in 1914 shattering the dreams of society. Both Denis and Max are called to the trenches, and Max does not return. The group try to resume their former life, with Violet giving public recitals and making commercial recordings * to eke out strained finances. Just as her career is taking off, Gordon inherits a fortune in a bizarre incident in which his sisters are shot by their drunken butler, and the ménage retreat to a comfortable private life at Nether Lypiatt.


Jessica wakes at this point, dismisses the ghosts as creatures that belong only to a past world, and orders the house to be sold.


Musically the piece is reminiscent of a patchwork quilt, with snippets from many sources being worked into an harmonious unity. There are echoes of all the musical forces that shaped Violet's world. Schubert and Richard Strauss, supplanted by Bach, Scarlatti and the early English school. There are the composers she knew personally: Albeniz, Smyth, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Delius; the modernists whose work she studied: Scriabin, Bartok, Stravinsky and of course the popular tunes of the day that she would reproduce on the piano by ear to amuse her friends. Clive Timms kept the orchestra in complete accord with each change of mood.


The presentations at GSMD were advertised as a concert performance, but in practice was far more than this, being fully costumed and furnished in a section of the concert platform beside the orchestra. This was perhaps not the happiest of arrangements as far as the balance of sound was concerned, but it did allow the piano and harpsichord to be drawn into the stage set, and full praise must be given to Eun-Young Kim, Violet's alter ego and keyboard player, who played both instruments with distinction as well as making some split second changes between them.


The title role was taken by Joana Seara, radiating charm in a shell-pink period gown, and singing with grace and style. As Gordon, Oliver Kuusik looked every inch the English gentleman, and almost sounded one using his well developed voice to advantage. Counter-tenor Iestyn Morris made a debonair Max, especially vulnerable in an army great coat singing his farewell from the trenches “ It is an almost perfect day ” The more down to earth Bill Barrington was well portrayed by David Stout, and his aria “ This garden shall be hers” was perhaps the finest piece of singing of the evening. To cast a soprano as Denis seemed a trifle perverse with Celeste Lazarenko making the best of a difficult role, and Ethyl Smythe was portrayed with equal cruelty as a baritone, Tom Oldham, who in the event was suffering from laryngitis and merely acted the part. It was sung, at very short notice by Edmund Connolly in impressively dark tone. Sadly virtually none of Lenia Safiropouou's words were intelligible, so the force of Jessica's final verdict and dismissal of her aunt's legacy were lost. Nonetheless it was an enjoyable evening perfectly evocative of a lost era.



Serena Fenwick



* A Pearl CD “Great Virtuosi of the Harpsichord Volume III” (ref GEMM CD 9242) brings together a good selection of Violet Gordon Woodhouse's recordings,

although the extraneous background noise is a disadvantage.

© Peter Grahame Woolf