The phenomenal popularity, well into the 20th century, of Balfe’s opera “The Bohemian Girl”
ensured that his music was well to the fore in musical drawing-rooms and parlours throughout
the British Dominions. Pride of place went to numerous arias from the celebrated opera itself,
plus “The Light of Other Days” from “The Maid of Artois”. But immensely successful, too, were
many of his 250-odd songs and ballads. The most famous of all, “Come into the garden, Maud”,
was not obviously not suitable for a soprano programme. Of the songs here, “Killarney”, was not
far behind it in popularity.
Balfe did not generally seek literary merit in the texts he set. Several here are by unidentified poets.
If their names are not on the score they are probably untraceable at this distance of time. Others are
by habitual opera librettists of the day such as Bunn and Fitzball. One poet of a certain stature who
attracted him was Longfellow. Just one example is given here –“The green trees whispered low and
mild”. This angle might profitably have been explored further.
Like his Italian contemporaries Donizetti and Bellini, Balfe did not generally seek to make a
ballad sound anything other than a spare operatic aria. The piano parts frequently sound as though
transcribed from an orchestral source and the melodic lines suggest elegiac cavatinas with the odd
lively cabaletta here and there. While it has yet to be proved that Balfe, as an operatic composer,
had the range and dramatic flair of Donizetti and Bellini at their best, as a melodist he found his
niche. If Donizetti and Bellini tend to sing of love and its complications, the abiding tone of Balfe
is that of nostalgia. A famous passage in Joyce’s “Dubliners” tells of a domestic rendering of “I
dreamt that I dwelt”, sung “in a tiny quavering voice”:
“…when she had ended her song Joe was much moved. He said that there was no time like
the long ago and no music for him like poor old Balfe, whatever other people might say;
and his eyes filled up so much with tears that he could not find what he was looking for
and in the end he had to ask his wife to tell him where the corkscrew was.” (James Joyce:
If Joyce was taking issue with his countrymen’s more sentimental side, he was also grudgingly
admitting that Balfe had mined a seam that ran deep in the Irish character. A seam that had been
sung very sweetly by Thomas Moore, was largely sidestepped by Stanford and was ennobled by
Yeats into a yearning for a legendary Celtic past. A seam that is not confined to Irishmen, of course.
Given a voice that can charge the long, languorous lines with the right pathos, Balfe will perhaps
never strike our profounder emotions, but he can nevertheless be infinitely touching. And there’s
the rub. If the performances are not such as to have you reaching for your glass, wiping a misty eye
and reflecting that the best times were the past times and no one sang them like Balfe, then the only
place for the record is the bin.
So I’m afraid the only place for this record is the bin. It’s not, I’m inclined to think, the fault of the
singer. Sally Silver actually has a lovely voice, light but even and easily produced, more gold than
silver. The words are reasonably clear. But there is no attempt to charge the line with emotion, to
involve the listener, to give meaning to the music. I see that Silver has sung a wide range of operatic
roles including Donizetti’s Lucia and Verdi’s Gilda and Violetta. Quite frankly, I can’t believe that
she sings an aria such as “Addio del passato” with such a light side-stepping of the emotions as she
does these pieces. I don’t suggest that Balfe can ever be made to bear the emotional weight of Verdi
at his most inspired, but at least give him what he’s got!
But, if Silver had any doubts, would she have tried to argue the toss with the great Richard
Bonynge? For the superficial approach stems, I fear, from him. The introduction to each song
sets the tone, and he invariably sets no tone at all, just sliding unconcernedly over the notes. His
phrasing is all too often bumpy and uneven, moreover – hear the beginning of “Killarney” – so
the performances are not even good according to their own lights. Scores are hard to come by, but
Boosey’s “Royal Edition” of “O smile as thou wert wont to smile” (aka “We may be happy yet”) is
marked “Larghetto cantabile” and the tempo here sounds like an “Allegretto” to me. It jogs along
happily, apparently unaware of the sorrows of which it speaks. “The green trees whispered” tells
a similar tale. So, I am sure, do all the other nostalgic ones – the ones you really go to Balfe for –
even if I haven’t scores with which to quote chapter and verse.
Of course, there are lighter songs, about gypsies and merry little Savoyards, that come off better,
but even these might have been characterized more fully. In any case, these are the makeweights
in a Balfe programme, put there not so much for their own sake but because an hour of unremitting
nostalgia would be too much.
A chapter of missed opportunities, then. And if you must get it whatever I say, keep the corkscrew
well out of reach, or you’ll be in for a nasty bout of lonely drinking as the expected friend fails to