Singers and Musical Personalities ~ Harold Blackburn (1925 - 1981)

1.  Blackburn

2. Oedipus

Harold Blackburn (1925 - 1981)

1.   Harold Blackburn, Scottish born bass-baritone, built his career around Sadlers Wells and English National Opera.


2.   Stravinsy's Oedipus Rex at Sadlers Wells.

Date: 1960
Photographer: Unknown ©Sadler's Wells Opera.

Though Colin Davis remains very active as a recording artist, latterly in the brilliant LSO Live series, it is good to be reminded quite what superb qualities his earliest recordings had. In 1960, as a live-wire young conductor about to become music director of the Sadler's Wells Opera Company (predecessor of ENO), he had one of his first really big successes in the theatre - all the more revelatory because it was totally unexpected.

Directed by Michel St Denis, the production of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex at Sadler's Wells completely altered attitudes to what was, at the time, a neglected piece. What had almost universally been regarded as a dry, over-intellectual work, made all the more arid by the use of a Latin text, was triumphantly revealed as an overwhelming, vitally dramatic opera, defying convention.

Striking as the stylised staging was, the conducting of Colin Davis was what set the seal on the experience: shatteringly powerful in its thrust, at once objective and deeply moving in dramatising Oedipus's tragedy. Record companies moved more slowly in those days, and it was not until the following year that Davis and his outstanding team from Sadler's Wells went into the EMI recording studio, with the opera company's own orchestra replaced by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

A thrilling performance of Stravinsky's score resulted, every bit as powerful as we had heard in the theatre.  .  .  .  Davis's electrifying account of Oedipus Rex has a hit-you-between-the-eyes quality reflecting the original stage experience, with each member of the cast prompted to sing challenging music with heartfelt commitment. There is no more red-blooded version of the work than this, with Ronald Dowd a powerful, cleanly focused Oedipus, deeply affecting in his two climactic solos, 'Invidia Fortunam Odit' and the final, agonised, 'Lux Facta Est' (All Is Revealed).

Patricia Johnson is similarly strong and firm as Jocasta, with a balefully dark chest register. Raimund Herincx as Creon, Harold Blackburn as Tiresias, and the young Alberto Remedios in the tiny role of the Shepherd, all bear witness to the vocal and dramatic strengths of the company at that time. The bonus now is that the disc comes at budget price. The bonus then was that Stravinsky himself thought so well of the company that within three years he used them for his own recording of The Rake's Progress.

Programme Note  

Stravinsky called Oedipus Rex an “opera-oratorio” and instructed that it be staged with minimal movement; the principal singers are to wear masks. Crucial to the work’s aesthetic was the decision to set a Latin text—a choice, Stravinsky wrote, with “the great advantage of giving me a medium not dead but turned to stone and so monumentalised as to have become immune from all risk of vulgarizations.”

The impersonal grandeur of Stravinsky’s retelling is signalled by the opening chorus. At the same time, Oedipus’ downfall is vividly delineated by the gradual defoliation of his vocal line. The musical trajectory—a throbbing engine of fate—is as undeflectable as the drama. In spite of Stravinsky’s principles and pronouncements—that music “is powerless to express anything at all”—the opera culminates in catharsis. Sophocles’ great tale of submission to fate resonates with Stravinsky’s religious sensibility: of submission to God.

[Text draws on a review published in The Guardian 3 June, 2003, personal recollections and Boosey and Hawkes introduction.]


3.  Sulphur

Harold Blackburn ~ The Mines of Sulphur

3.   Catherine Wilson, Harold Blackburn, Colin Graham, Richard Rodney Bennett discuss aspects of the opera 'Mines of Sulphur' by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett.

Date: 1965
Photographer Unknown. (Sadlers Wells Opera.)

Richard Rodney Bennett enjoyed a period of early success as an opera composer in the sixties, particularly with works performed at Sadler's Wells Theatre. The Mines of Sulphur, a highly theatrical drama conducted first by Colin Davis, was an immediate success, with performances at La Scala as well as in France and Germany. Apart from the recent stagings of The Mines of Sulphur at Glimmerglass and Wexford, Bennett's works have not been revived. The Mines of Sulphur is the only one to have been recorded.

Blackburn created the role of Sherrin an actor (taking the role of the Count in the play) in the original production at Sadlers Wells Opera and on the subsequent tour. 

Set in the 18th century West Country, Rosalind, trying to escape from her master, Braxton, is driven back by the winter weather. When sdmits two friends into the house, Boconnion and Tovey, Boconnion murders Braxton. The trio are enjoying life in Braxton’s manor house when they are interrupted by the arrival of a troupe of touring actors, also seeking shelter. Boconnion lets them in on condition that they perform a play, and Sherrin chooses to perform The Mines of Sulphur.

The plot of this comedy involves a young wife having an affair with her elderly husband’s valet. When they plot to kill the old man, Rosalind and Tovey interrupt the performance which is too close to real life. When an actor reveals that he knows Boconnion’s identity, the deserter locks the actors in a cellar and plans to burn the building down to conceal his crimes. However the actors manage to escape, leaving Jenny behind. She is kissed by Boconnion, to provoke Rosalind, but then reveals that she and the other actors are suffering from plague. Boconnion and his friends are doomed.

The Sadlers Wells company performed the opera in Glasgow in 1965.

[Text based on and other sources in the public domain.]


Harold Blackburn Anecdotes, photographs and recordings

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