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Thomas HYDE (b. 1978)
That Man Stephen Ward: One-Man Opera, Op. 8 (2006/7)
Damian Thantrey (baritone)
Nova Music Opera Ensemble/George Vass
rec. St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford, 2016
RESONUS RES10197 [62:57]

It seems particularly poignant to be listening to and writing about That Man Stephen Ward in the month of Christine Keeler’s death, and not many weeks after that of John Hurt. Hurt’s memorably vivid portrayal of Ward in the 1989 film Scandal means that his face and voice will, for many, be indelibly associated with the “society osteopath” whose fate is depicted in Thomas Hyde’s opera.

Ward himself, though, was a poignantly tragic figure. As a popular and extraordinarily well-connected Cavendish Square medical practitioner, he was propelled into the glittering social whirl of early 1960s’ London and became, at least for a time and on the surface, one of its most influential movers and shakers. He treated such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Pandit Nehru, Averell Harriman and Lord William Waldorf Astor, and considered himself their friend and confidant. He also loved night-clubs, parties and girls—often relating to the latter, surprisingly enough, on an essentially Platonic level; and he was used increasingly as a key conduit between these two very different worlds. Fatefully, in 1959 he met the 17-year-old Soho showgirl Christine Keeler, and over the next few years introduced her to a number of his prominent associates—most notably Evgeny Ivanov, a naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy and probably a spy, and the British Secretary of State for War, John Profumo.

The rest, as they say, is history. Profumo’s security-threatening six-month affair with Keeler became public knowledge, resulting in his humiliating resignation on 5 June 1963; and, a mere two days later, Ward was charged—on the scantiest of evidence—with “procuring and living on immoral earnings”. He was never going to get a fair trial. Rather, he swiftly became a convenient scapegoat for an embattled and lily-livered social, political and legal establishment, many of whom he had befriended and serviced, but who now, to a man, dropped him like a hot potato. On 30 June 1963, about to be sentenced and unable to face such rejection and its inevitable consequences, Ward took his own life with an overdose of vodka-soaked barbiturates. He was 50 years old.

Ward’s career is a powerful morality tale; Thomas Hyde and his librettist David Norris are by no means the only ones to have told it—remember the 2013 Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical? But their “One-Man Opera” packs a very powerful punch, especially in the present recording under George Vass, based on a 2015 production in which it shared a double bill with Charlotte Bray’s Ruth Ellis opera Entanglement.

Norris and Hyde’s hour-long account of Ward’s fall is divided into six scenes, entitled—a bit self-consciously—Consultation, Conversation, Congregation, Consternation, Condemnation, and Consummation. The first is set in Ward’s surgery around the time of his arrest, and shows him regaling his patient, Lord Astor, with name-dropping pleasantries about the “smakerals of fun” they have had together, only for the latter, with a silent but eloquent gesture, to demand that Ward return to him the keys of his country cottage. We then flashback to a scene in that very cottage in which Ward sketches, advises and rejects a pass from his protegée Christine Keeler, before moving on to the dramatic centre of the opera, the scenes called “Congregation” and “Consternation”. Here we see Ward as an eager party host, schmoozing assorted celebrities and notorieties—including Ivanov, Profumo and the slum landlord Peter Rachman—before gunshots are fired which alert the police to the nefarious goings-on. From then on, Ward is in trouble. He expects his important friends to rally around him; but the phone never rings. And so the end comes with the inexorability of a Greek tragedy. Ward, in prison, affectingly recalls an incident at school where, just like now, he took the blame for something he did not do; and, soon afterwards, he “welcomes the night” and ends it all.

All this is conveyed by just one singer and an ensemble of six musicians (violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano or harpsichord, and percussion). On stage, Astor, Keeler, Profumo and Ivanov are portrayed by dancers, but on CD of course we can only imagine them. Initially I felt this was a problem, but having the full libretto—complete with stage directions—in the booklet helps a lot; and by the end I was glad that, after the manner of a radio play, the sound-only version encouraged me to focus exclusively on the words of Ward’s extensive soliloquy and the pungent instrumental sounds Hyde conjures up to accompany it. His score judiciously combines occasional set-piece numbers in Cabaret style with a number of elements one associates with the Second Viennese School (Pierrot Lunaire-style instrumentation, Sprechgesang, and a kind of neo-Bergian atmosphere precariously poised somewhere between Wozzeck and Lulu). The whole thing is a vocally taxing and stylistically challenging mélange for any baritone to cope with; but Damian Thantrey is equal to the task. Very occasionally one is irritated by his exaggerated attempts at certain accents—Ward’s own cut-glass vowels, Keeler’s falsetto Cockney or, perhaps especially, the policeman’s cod Brummie (why?). But this is a minor fault, and every word remains clear. Overall Thantrey’s performance is a musical and dramatic tour de force. It is fully in line, I am sure, with Norris and Hyde’s conception of their central character—as a flawed, vain, charming, emotionally needy but essentially decent social climber, whose fatal flaw is to trust people who are more deeply self-interested than he is. We feel sorry for Ward, without being able to admire him.

Overall, then, this is an outstanding recording of a powerful and absorbing work—superbly sung, vividly conducted and pleasingly recorded. Anyone who is the least bit interested in contemporary opera really should hear it.

Nigel Harris

 

 




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