“The Words Are So Lovely”: Durrell’s Sappho to Premiere as Opera in 2012.

Durrell 2012: The Lawrence Durrell Centenary is delighted to announce a major musical event scheduled for the Centenary year.

Owls Nest Opera will mount the first-ever full-scale recording of Sappho: Opera in Three Acts, with music composed by Peggy Glanville-Hicks and a libretto written by Lawrence Durrell.

The recording of Glanville-Hicks’ 1963 opera will be held in Lisbon in July 2012.  Musical Director Jennifer Condon will conduct the Gulbenkian Orchestra and Chorus, with Deborah Polaski and Sir John Tomlinson taking on the leading roles.

The 2012 CD release of Sappho will occur just in time to mark the centenary celebrations of Glanville-Hicks (1912 – 1990) and Durrell (1912 – 1990).

The San Francisco Opera originally commissioned Glanville-Hicks to adapt Durrell’s Sappho in early 1963.  The Australian composer was an ardent champion of Durrell’s libretto.  She observed that:

[Sappho] is an acting role, par excellence, and a great acting capacity is far more important than a beautiful or famous voice here. The text is fabulous, and the most difficult to set that I’ve ever encountered, simply because the words are so lovely, packed and significant, and I feel all along that they must be heard, the music being scaled down to ensure this.

Kurt Adler, at that time director of the San Francisco Opera (1953 – 1981), shared Glanville-Hicks’ appreciation of Durrell’s libretto.  Adler remarked that Sappho contained “the most beautiful use of the English language of any operatic text I have come across.”

Soprano Maria Callas was originally scheduled to sing the title role.  However, the San Francisco Opera ended up cancelling the 1963 production, and the musical collaboration of Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Lawrence Durrell has never been performed in its entirety — until now.

Jennifer Condon — a young Australian conductor currently working as Souffleuse at the Hamburg State Opera — has tirelessly campaigned to revive Glanville-Hicks’ opera.  Condon offers the following appraisal of Sappho:

The sound palette and colour of this opera is extraordinary, with Peggy’s study of Greek themes and Indian music.  It’s like nothing I have ever come across before.  Lawrence Durrell’s libretto is wonderful, and we have singers of the highest level to carry this off, so I know it will be an extraordinary recording.

The early history of this forgotten opera is as fascinating as the story of its revival.

Glanville-Hicks initially contacted Durrell about making an operatic setting of Sappho: A Play in Verse (1950) sometime in 1960, using Diana Menuhin as an introduction.  By March 1963, the composer had in hand a commission from the San Francisco Opera, with funding for the project coming from the Ford Foundation.  Glanville-Hicks and Durrell kept in close contact throughout the development of Sappho, and in September 1963 the writer traveled to Greece in order to join the composer for direct consultation about cuts to the libretto.

During this period, Glanville-Hicks admitted discovering that she “deeply identified” with Sappho, who was, in her vision,

an aging, tragic, rich, successful, famous lady who, mystic at heart has never found fulfillment despite having had everything. She is in turn tempestuous, querulous, compassionate, tender, fierce, impatient, swinging fast from one mood to another, poised like a needle in a compass.

By October 1963, Glanville-Hicks felt confident enough to send a postcard to Durrell announcing the completion of her musical setting of his lyrics:

Dear Larry–

Sappho has sung her last aria — the curtain is down and the house lights are up!  Seven months and eleven days — a record!  I rather think that the last act is gorgeous.

Sometime later, Glanville-Hicks made the following character-sketch of her new-found friend, Larry Durrell:

He’s a mad Irishman who’s never set foot in Ireland[. . . .]  He’s a short, stocky little man who (every time he goes swimming) prays softly into the waves, “Oh god please make me thin again” — who was born in India, gives fabulous impersonations of the Babu, the Anglo-Indian, or the Greek having an argument (his Greek is fabulous) he perhaps could have been a great actor[. . . .]  He’s better than his books.  I felt I’d found a new real friend, and that happens less and less, I find.

A 1963 photo-shoot of Durrell and Glanville-Hicks evidences their mutual delight while working on the Sappho project.

Durrell 2012 extends its warmest appreciation to Jennifer Condon and Owls Nest Opera for their work to revive the Sappho opera.  We look forward to collaborating with Ms. Condon and Owls Nest Opera throughout 2012 — the centenary year of Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Lawrence Durrell.

Read the Sydney Morning Herald’s feature on Jennifer Condon, Nine-Year Quest Fueled by Love for Lost Opera.

Read Sounds Like Sydney’s conversation with Jennifer Condon, When The Goat’s Bell Rang For Sappho.

Visit the official site of Sappho: Opera in Three Acts.

Join Sappho: The Opera and Durrell 2012 on Facebook.

Donate to the Sappho Recording Appeal.

Download the “Final Monologue” from Sappho: Opera in Three Acts, sung by Australian soprano Deborah Riedel.

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Filed under Durrell 2012 Event, Durrell in the News, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Sappho