October 28, 2021


Holst: The Perfect Fool. Richard Golding, Pamela Bowden, Walter Plinge, Alison Hargan, Barbara Platt, Lesley Rooke, Margaret Neville, John Mitchinson, David Read, Ronald Harvi, George Hagan; BBC Northern Singers and BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Groves. Lyrita. $18.99.

     To say that Gustav Holst’s gently satirical 1923 one-act opera The Perfect Fool has fared poorly in recordings is a vast understatement. It has simply not been available as a complete work at all, even though the opening ballet music has been frequently recorded and crops up with some regularity at concerts. And now, thanks to Lyrita, The Perfect Fool is at last on CD – albeit in a performance more than 50 years old, and not in stereo. That is correct: this is a monophonic recording, taken from a 1967 BBC radio broadcast – and it exists only because it was captured at home on acetates. What a set of circumstances!

     The near-total neglect of The Perfect Fool, for which Holst wrote the libretto as well as the music, is in some ways understandable. It is in large part a satire of grand opera: audiences unfamiliar with operatic conventions will see and hear only a rather mild and silly fairy-tale story. For the title character, imagine Wagner’s Parsifal (Wagner thought, incorrectly, that the name meant “perfect fool”) recast as a cowardly, half-witted, constantly yawning or sleeping lump of flesh. Then, for the typical fairy-tale competition seeking love, think of Verdi vs. Wagner. And for the fulfillment of the inevitable fairy-tale prophecy, think of nothing sung at all – just one spoken word.

     As a sendup of grand opera – and some not-so-grand opera as well – The Perfect Fool is perfectly delightful. It works so well because Holst never overdoes things. He has the princess wooed by a troubadour (tenor John Mitchinson; think Il Trovatore) singing a very catchy, very Verdian ditty but then faltering at the end on his high notes (think “A tenor, all singers above” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia Ltd.). Then Holst has the haughty princess (think Turandot) wooed by a very Wagnerian bass (David Read) who wears Wotan’s hat and eyepatch and who sings with very Wagnerian portentousness and alliteration: “World’s wildest woe/ Wantonly woos me./ Direst dreadfulness,/ Darkest of dooms!” But it is “the perfect fool” (Walter Plinge) who wins the princess (soprano Margaret Neville) – and does not want her. He spends the opera snoring and yawning until, near the end, he speaks (not sings) a single word in response to the princess’ plea that he tell her whether he loves her: “No.” And then, at the very end of the opera, an attempt to crown the Fool anyway, despite his complete lack of interest and involvement, goes awry when he yawns and falls asleep yet again.

     All this is in fulfillment of the usual absurd prophecy, which in this case predicts that the Fool will kill a foe with a look and win a bride with a single glance. The Fool does exactly that, courtesy of his clever, long-suffering mother (contralto Pamela Bowden), who has to drag him everywhere since he is always half-asleep when not fully asleep. She figures out how to turn a powerful love-and-destruction potion against the Wizard (bass Richard Golding, whose role also requires him to fall asleep at an inopportune time); as a result, “all the flames left of the wizard was his hat.”

     It is certainly true that the ballet music, heard at the start of The Perfect Fool as the Wizard calls up various spirits to create the potion, is the only easy-to-excerpt element of the score; indeed, portions of the ballet music recur near the end as the spurned Wizard seeks revenge – Holst obviously knew he had some good tunes there. But the opera is tuneful at other times, too, and has some genuinely funny stage business as the Troubadour and Traveller sing at each other while the former’s retainers become “conventionally agitated” and sing over one another. The Perfect Fool is not Holst’s only venture into satire of grand opera – he had already written Opera as She Is Wrote in 1918 – and it is not his only one-act opera: all of his are in a single act except the three-act Sita (1906). The absence of The Perfect Fool from recordings truly is something of a mystery: it is light, easy to understand, amusing, satirical but not overbearingly so, and musically very well crafted. And the remastered performance on Lyrita is really first-rate, even though nothing can be done about the original recording being monophonic. The singers handle themselves well without overacting, and Charles Grove leads the chorus and orchestra with a sure hand and clear understanding of Holst’s style. Furthermore, the packaging is outstanding and should be a model for the release of other operas: the single-disc recording is in a two-disc-size box that allows inclusion of a well-written explanatory booklet plus a separate booklet containing the entire libretto. That presentation gets a loud “bravo!” And come to think of it, The Perfect Fool itself also deserves one.

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