Premiere of Thelma, review by SCTF patron Daniel Labonne

Daniel LabonneDaniel Labonne writes: 2012 is the centenary year of the death of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Having spent most of his life in the Surrey town of Croydon, it is right that Croydon and Surrey devote a programme of activities to pay a proper tribute to the Afro-British composer. You will remember that SC-T’s father was a Sierra Leone doctor and his mother a London woman. In Victorian England, the half-cast conductor and composer was unusual. It is not only the premature death (he died age 37), but it is the hard-working creative artist he was that makes him a positive role-model. He was also quite daring, trying his hand at various forms of musical expression. Sometimes at his own peril, as suggests Jonathan Butcher, the arranger-stage director of Thelma.

Thelma is a full length opera by Coleridge-Taylor, created in a world premiere at Fairfields Halls, in Croydon, on the 9th,10th,11th February 2012. On the opening night, I was among the spectators at Ashcroft Theatre and I fully enjoyed a performance by the Surrey Opera. There were some 90 performers – musicians, choir and lead roles. The storyline takes us to the land of the Vikings at the time of Christian conversion in the 10th-11th century. To venture so far, culturally speaking, and so deep into the past may be considered either a weakness or a mark of courage. But when we consider the earlier success of Hiawatha trilogy, it becomes clearer why the composer kept reaching out to far-away tales and drama to inspire his musical work. Native Americans, Old Japan, Vikings… But can we really hold it against him, given his personal background, that beyond the merits of musical work, he should attempt to make a statement about ‘difference’?

Jonathan Butcher found the libretto awkward and regrets that SC-T had not invited another writer to collaborate, instead of producing the lyrics of Thelma. The likelihood is that Coleridge-Taylor was always in need of money and he had been betrayed before over shared rights… We must also remember the fact that, at 37, he was still experimenting. The production of Thelma is therefore an adaptation but ‘the plot has been retained exactly as SC-T imagined it’. I liked what I saw and heard. Particularly appealing is the staging of the undersea kingdom. The musical rendering succeeds in sustaining the attention throughout the two and a half hour performance. But does any moment bring a tear to my eye? No. Tim Baldwin, in the role of King Olaf, had both the vocal skills and the mastery among a cast that does reflect a touch multicultural inspirations. The unique setting was effective, thanks to simplicity of lines and curves brought alive by the quality of lighting.

The task accomplished is both worthwhile and enjoyable. And the Surrey Opera deserves gratitude for raising the curtain over yet another facet of the talents of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. From the 14th February to the 30th December, the celebration of Croydon’s man of music will take many forms. I am personally pleased that, in the centenary festival, a gala concert including SC-T’s Violin Concerto in G Minor and Hiawatha Wedding Feast features on the programme of activities.

That is exactly where the SC-T Society of Croydon left it in 2000. The good news is that, since then the SC-T Foundation has taken over and lacks neither drive nor artistic skills, given the relationship with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and others. Samuel Coleridge Taylor deserves more recognition and ongoing exposure, both locally and nationally. And – why not? – internationally. 2012 is the year to get it right.

Daniel Labonne
(ex. Croydon SC-T Society artistic director)

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