Chapter Review of The King's Henchman (1926-27)



Review of Olin Downes in The New York Times

"KINGS HENCHMAN" HAILED AS BEST AMERICAN OPERA

Deems Taylor Work, Sung in English, Is Wildly Acclaimed at the Metropolitan

MILLAY BOOK IS POETIC

Composer's Expressive Music Has Beauty and Deep Emotional Appeal

MELODIES OF OLD ENGLAND

Lawrence Tibbett, Florence Easton and Edward Johnson Excel - An Artistic Production

The most important production of the Metropolitan Opera Company's present season took place last night with the premier of "The King's Henchman," a grand opera in three acts by Deems Taylor and Edna St.Vincent Millay. The production attracted one of the most brilliant audiences that has gathered for years in this famous lyric theatre. It was greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm. At the end of the first act it was plain that the opera stirred the audience, that the applause, the shouts, the calls and recalls for composer and librettist, who returned ten times to the stage, were inspired by deeper feelings than the politeness and superficial excitement of a premiere or an amiable chauvinism.

There was an unwonted thrill in the air. It evidently meant that everyone rejoiced in the merited success of two young American artists who had given of their best under circumstances of especial difficulty, and established a new precedent in the field of native opera.

"The King's Henchman" has its qualities and its defects, variously to be estimated, and better to be estimated in a conclusive tone after more than one performance. But it has undeniably theatrical effect, conciseness, movement, youthful spirit and sincerity; its text is poetic and well adapted to the needs of the singers; its music has the impact, the expressiveness and color appropriate to music-drama. From the perspective of other American operas heard or read in score and by the evidence last night of eye and ear, it is clear that Mr. Taylor and Miss Millay have produced the most effectively and artistically wrought American opera that has reached the stage.


Historical Personages.

For her plot Miss Millay went to sources which are partly of history and partly of legend. Her principal characters are historical personages, though shrouded in mists and ambiguities of old tales. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells of Eadgar of Wessex, King of England in the early part of the tenth century; of Aethelwold, dispatched to Devon to bring Eadgar a bride; also of the Archbishop Dunstan, an unimportant element of Miss Millay's plot, and of Eadgar's resentment when Aethelwold took the proposed Queen to himself. When his trick was discovered Aethelwold was dispatched to fight the Danes and was killed.

Thus the chronicle and the material Miss Millay found ready to her hand. She has, of course, treated it in her own way for poetic and dramatic ends, has invoked an old legend of All Hallows Eve to heighten the force and inevitability of her tragedy, and has provided a denouement of her individual making. In the opera Eadgar deceives his King and foster brother, to whom he has sworn allegiance only to be ended by death. He sees Aelfrida to love her. He instructs Marcus, the minstrel, to go back to the King and inform him that the maiden Aelfrida is not fair. Aethelwold then lives for a while in troubled and perilous happiness with Aelfrida as his bride, until the King, missing the companionship of his henchman, comes on a visit to the home of Aelfrida's father, the Thane of Devon. The truth is discovered. Aethelwold confesses his deceit; his King is aghast at his faithlessness to his trust; Aelfrida, who proves a shallow and ambitious jade, resentful of the rank she missed, turns upon him, and Aethelwold, in despair, destroys himself.

These are the main elements of the plot as disclosed in the three acts of Miss Millay's libretto. The libretto has been compared to Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," for there is a King who sends his vassal to woo; there is a love spell, in the incantation uttered by Aelfrida in the wood-an incantation that destines her to wed Aethelwold; there is a faithful retainer in the person of the minstrel Maccus, follower of Aethelwold; and the sentiments of the King in the last act are those of Mark in the second act of "Tristan." There are these analogies between the two operas, but there are also many divergences of characters and events. It would not be easy to make make a drama of love and death that had not some resemblance to Wagner's theme. The question of importance is how sincerely, authentically, and effectively for operatic purposes has Miss Millay compiled her plot and text.


Brilliant Orchestral Prelude.

As Mr. Taylor has put it very truly, the audience at a production of grand opera does not see the notes and words that composer and librettist put on paper, but the figures that confront it and the music that sounds over the footlights. The audience last night beard a brief and brilliant orchestral prelude, which announced the knightly music of the King, and heard the voice of the minstrel Maccus, before the curtain rose on the scene of Eadgar's Court at Winchester, with revelry in progress. There Maccus twanged his harp, and sang of a gallant fight and death for a lady. There was a toss-pot jest and various vocal conversation, not heard very clearly through the swelling stream of Mr. Taylor's orchestration, which gave teeming life to the episode and carried everything before it.

Gradually individuals and salient musical characterization emerged from the hurly-burly. The young King-he was nevertheless a widower-disclosed his loneliness. Aethelwold, aglow with the glory of the skies and stars outside, was framed in the doorway. Reluctant at first, and no fancier of women, he at last acceded to the King's request that he go and fetch Aelfrida of Devon as Eadgar's bride. And the two swore blood brother with cup and sword.

Life, that is stronger than I, is not so strong as thou and I! Death, that is stronger than I, is not so strong As thou and I! Unquelled, Thou and I, Till Life and Death be friends!

This to the accompaniment of the musical motive of brotherhood and trust; then the singing by Maccus and the chorus of a rousing folk-song of Cornwall to the text of Miss Millay, "Caesar, great wert thou, and Julius was thy name!" - music that returned with superb effect as prelude to its tragedy of the last scenes - and the departure of Aethelwold on his errand.


Incantation In Devon Forest.

The second act disclosed the forest in Devon, on the night of All Hallow Mass; Aethelwold and Maccus lost among the trees; Maccus full of forebodings, Aethelwold weary and caring only for sleep. The disappearance of Maccus, Aethelwold's sleep. The coming of Aelfrida, alarmed at the loneliness of that woor, yet determined to try the old incantation, whereby she may escape the bumpkin her father wishes her to wed. The incantation, spoken in fearful tones, while strange sounds come a-calling through the forest and the orchestra, too, weaves a spell. Aelfrida perceiving Aethelwold, and the charm upon them. Aethelwold, only now aware of whom he loved, striving to remember his vow, and escape with Maccus, but helpless when Aelfrida called him; Maccus sent back to Eadgar with his false errand.

The events of the last act moved quickly, but not the less impressively for the audience: Ase, the serving woman of Aelfrida, at her spinning; Aelfrida distraught and discontent, quarrelsome with Aethelwold, both resolving to fly the place which oppressed them, and go to Flanders. The complacencies of Ordgar, Aelfrida's father, anxious for Aethewold's good word at Eadgar's court. The sight, in the distance, of approaching men; the appearance of Maccus, with news that the King of England is at hand. The clang and tread of the song of Cornwall and the catastrophe that it brings always nearer; the entrance of the King and his retainers. Eadgar had told Aelfrida to go and hide herself from the King's eye, pour dust on her hair, stain her face, appear, if she must appear, old and ugly.

But now, in the face of the King's entreaties to see her, Aelfrida appeared; not old, not ugly, radiant before the King. Eadger reproached his henchman, and Aethelwold spoke: "Eadgar, Badger, what we have to say must quickly be said. Here we stand at last, we three. But the wind is too strong. We cannot hear each other shout. . . Do ye get what I say, Eadgar, Aelfrida? No? So. Shake your hands and laugh. Let it be so." Aethelwold fell, Aelfrida wept. The King said to her: "Thou has not tears enough in thy narrow heart to weep him worthily." The chanting of the Chorus, theme of allegiance and fidelity, heard as a requiem, as the curtain fell.


Combines Beauty and Emotion.

By and large, poetic and glamorous material for the theatre. It might be asked whether it is the best kind of material for effective opera or for the special gifts of Mr. Taylor, but that is a matter to be seen. There is beauty and emotion in it all and there is little or nothing unsusceptible to musical treatment, either by the symphonic orchestra of Mr. Taylor or by the admirable cast of Metropolitan singers. If the first act had more of dramatic incident it would be less like a single scene and have more of the strong and salient contrasts of mood which should inhere in a complete section of an opera. But certainly there is no dead wood in it. The second is dangerous because of its long-sustained emotional periods and its comparative lack of movement.

Doubtless this is intentional; it is also a severe test of a composer. Mr. Taylor has made much of its atmosphere of nature and mystery, and has provided contrasts and climaxes in his music. The third act seems on first view the best contrasted and the most effective in its proportions and the opportunities it gives the composer. One would say that Mr. Taylor also felt that way, for he has departed happily from the conventional and somewhat pale third act of which even noted composers have been guilty, and has written here with exemplary vigor and expressiveness.


Proves His Melodic Gift.

Mr. Taylor's score proves his melodic gift, his spirit and sense of drama. He had special problems with a libretto which is more literary than dramatic, in spite of its imaginative and emotional character. His text is for the greater part free in rhythm, irregular in its periods, and not always cast in shapes most amenable to melodic setting. Nevertheless Mr. Taylor, in his first essay in the form of grand opera, has succeeded in an astonishing degree in giving this text musical form and organic musical rhythms; in utilizing his orchestral very ably in the Wagnerian manner, and yet in keeping one eye on the tastes and instincts of an opera audience. He develops, combines, transforms his motives in his orchestra; he also writes broad and curving phrases for the singers, phrases reinforced by the surge and impact of the instruments. (And high notes for tenors-vide Mr. Johnson departing on his horse at the end of the first act.) It need not be claimed, in all this, that he has yet developed the individuality and the incisiveness of musical speech which opera demands for its utmost effect, or that he has always succeeded in hitting his dramatic target. The remarkable thing is Mr. Taylor's degree of success, the communicative and sensuous quality of his music, and, above all, the direct and unaffected manner of his composing.

He has composed with complete frankness and without aping any style. He falls naturally into Wagnerian uses and sometimes idioms, as in the love music of the second act, but his essential methods are far from Wagnerian. They emphasize the stage; they put the singers either in the first place or at least on an equality with the instruments. The symphonic style gives place at appropriate moments to the broadly melodic. The solo of the King relating his longing to Aethelwold is almost Italian in this respect and is one of the most grateful pages of the [first] act. This act moves with exhilarating energy and gusto. The folk-song of Cornwall brings a conclusion which Mr. Taylor, with his long knowledge of choral writing, is particularly fitted to furnish.

The orchestral introduction of the second act is an excellent change of atmosphere and the scene of the incantation is admirably contrived in the mixing of the tone qualities of voices behind the scenes, interwoven as they are with the harmonies of the orchestra, and the voice of Aelfrida against this background uttering her incantation. The love duet has abundance of orchestral color and appropriate lyricism, though it is not very original music. On the other hand it is not unduly prolonged, and the act has a climax in the surrender to his temptation of Aethelwold. This is perhaps the weakest of the three acts.

The final act indicates what Mr. Taylor might do with a book that furnished him more incident. It is the strongest and most substantial of the three. The prelude in folk vein is appropriate. The duet of the lovers, now wedded, is rather obvious, but good theatre. The approach of the King and his men, the Cornwall song echoing from singers and orchestra, and the bustle and commotion on the stage are the music of a composer who relishes action and event. The close is dignified and pathetic, and Mr. Tibbett's enunciation of some of the best of Miss Millay's lines materially heightened its effect.


Most of Cast Americans.

Much has been said of libretto and music, and more will be related after future performances. At this time the exceptional virtues of the Interpretation by a cast consisting principally of American singers, with Mr. Johnson, a Canadian, as the hero, can only be mentioned in outline. Above all the other interpreters stands Mr. Serafin. Neither Mr. Taylor nor any other composer could hope for a more masterly and inspired conductor. He secured tile very last ounce of tone and response from his forces. The orchestral performance of last night, alone and in itself, would be a lasting monument in this city to Mr. Serafin's fame. Mr. Johnson's singing and diction were admirable.

Miss Easton, like Mr. Johnson, Mr. Tibbett, Mr. Gustafson, was admirable in her diction and in the customary intelligence of her impersonation. Hers is not a very sympathetic part, either as drawn by librettist or composer. Mr. Meader's Archbishop was worthy of his best achievements. The father of Aelfrida should be suppressed, for he is an unutterable ass, even worse than the heavy father In "La Traviata," and not half as melodic. He is not needed in the opera, but was impersonated as well as could be hoped, and with a properly protruding stomach. The various minor parts could be praised in detail. But it was to Mr. Tibbett that the audience finally turned for his creation of the rôle of the King.

His singing and enunciation were a high water mark in these respects. There were praiseworthy scenic settings by Joseph Urban, the best of these being the setting of the first act, but all conveying the period and character of the drama.

At the end of the performance there was a full twenty minutes of applauding. Mr. Taylor and Miss Millay were acclaimed; then Mr. Tibbett; finally Miss Easton and Mr. Johnson. Mr. Serafin, the stage director, and others implicated had been earlier recognized. There was a pause and a silence when Miss Millay said, "I thank you. I love you all," with pardonable impulse and sincerity. Mr. Taylor hesitated, then blurted out, "That's just what I was going to say."