Poster of the Premiere
July 26th, 27th and 28th, 2006
St Mary’s Church, Dorchester
Thomas Hardy Festival
An account by his wife and publisher, Cynthia Downes, posted on October 27th, 2019
More info on the opera
In the noughties, Dorset born pianist, Duncan Honeybourne (who has championed all of Andrew's works for piano) suggested Andrew might like to write an opera based on one of the novels of Dorset writer, Thomas Hardy. Duncan introduced Andrew to Furse Swann, who was the Chairman of the Thomas Hardy Society and who became interested in commissioning the opera and organising the premiere performances at the 2006 Thomas Hardy International Festival.
Andrew chose Far from the Madding Crowd, because it was Hardy's only novel which had a happy ending. I went through the novel and chose lines to form the libretto. Thomas Hardy's own words were so beautiful that I realised they had to be used. My job became one of choosing which ones to leave out! Andrew again set the words to perfection and created an absolutely beautiful work.
Our daughter, Paula, had a number of up-and-coming singer friends who were perfect for the main parts and a colleague at her school, Abigail Cave-Bigley, who did a wonderful job of the direction. Our daughter, Anna, gathered together players from her Central England Ensemble for the Orchestra. Paula's husband, David Trippett, was our outstanding Musical Director. We booked a caravan site for the cast and crew for 2 weeks to rehearse and perform the 3 premiere performances.
In the winter before the opera, I happened to play in the orchestra for a local production of Fiddler on the Roof. I was extremely taken with the costumes, which I thought would be perfect for our opera, so I asked to be introduced to the wardrobe mistress, Ann Nation. I asked if she would be interested in being hired to take charge of our costumes. She was very excited at the prospect, loved Thomas Hardy, lived on a farm and could provide a real sheep's fleece and other brilliant props. Ann was used to productions and was a godsend to us, as we were totally inexperienced. She gave us all the advice and support we needed. She also kept the cast and crew amused with her humour! Andrew and I busied ourselves collecting other props during the months leading up to the production. The Birmingham canal shop, with its its beautifully painted jugs and lamps, provided just the style we needed.
I made all the scores and parts and sent them out quite a long time before the 2 weeks in Dorset. We were delighted at the first run through that everyone had learnt their music really well.
The singers came for the 2 weeks, the orchestra came for the second week. I played viola in the production and had quite a few solos, being the only one on my part!
Our daughter, Paula, sang the role of Bathsheba, and the roles of her 3 'suitors' were sung by Jonathan Pugsley, Daniel Sumner and Simon Walton. Our son-in-law, Mike Price, together with friends from the Midlands - Stuart, Margaret, Katie and Lucy Pickford and Ben Sawyer - as well as Paula's friend from university, Matthew Price, came to sing the parts of the country yokels! The first 3 performances took place on July 26th, 27th and 28th at St Mary’s Church, Dorchester. Everyone performed brilliantly.
My brother, Tim, who had also lots of experience in theatrical performances, offered to do our lighting. He said he just needed a summary of each scene and the mood required and then he and his wife, Rue, would do the rest with portable lights from his school. Tim and Rue came down to Dorset with their young family in a very old camper van, which broke down: they just arrived at the end of the dress rehearsal! They immediately started setting up, but, disaster struck: the lights were so powerful that the church electricity supply couldn't cope and everything fused! By some miracle, Rue's brother, who was an electrician(!) had come too and fixed the lights using the church kitchen electricity supply! While all this was happening, our Director spotted Tim's 5 year old daughter, Eve, and quickly choreographed a human pyramid, with Eve climbing to the top, for one of the first scenes of the opera, which was beautifully lit just in time for the first performance!
It was certainly a family affair for us. Our 4 month old number one grandson, Oscar (Anna and Mike's son) was also present. He slept in the wings during the performances, watched over by Mike and the cast, while they were waiting to go on!
A DVD recording was made of the Dorchester performances, and is available here. Here are some freeze-frames from the film:
Paula Downes as Bathsheba, Jonathan Pugsley as Gabriel Oak and Daniel Sumner as Mr Boldwood.
Jonathan Pugsley as Gabriel Oak with Paula Downes as Bathsheba just behind left, then Emma Rothman as the Aunt and Alison Hill as Maryann Money. Right - Katie Pickford as Mrs Coggan.
Left to right: Lucy Pickford, Margaret Pickford, Matthew Price (front), Stuart Pickford, Mike Price - Chorus. Emma Rothman as Aunt (behind), Katie Pickford as Jan Coggan, Paula Downes as Bathsheba, Daniel Sumner as Mr Boldwood, Jonathan Pugsley as Gabriel Oak, Ben Sawyer, Kate Hopkins - Chorus, Alison Hill (front right) as Maryann Money.
David Trippett conducting the orchestra led by Anna Downes.
Chorus members left to right: Lucy Pickford, Mike Price, Ben Sawyer, Stuart Pickford.
Final Scene: Bathsheba (Paula Downes), and Gabriel Oak (Jonathan Pugsley), get married.
Joining the stage for bows:
Back left: Simon Walton as Troy
Front left to right: Director Abigail Cave-Bigley, Librettist and Producer Cynthia Downes, Musical Director David Trippett.
Review from the International Biographical Association:
Emails following the premiere:
To and from Kate Hopkins who played Fanny Robin and Laban Tall:
From trombonist John Wells:
From chorus members Stuart and Margaret Pickford (Stuart later wrote, "Far from the Madding crowd was a once in a lifetime experience for us and we shall never forget it. We enjoyed both performances - they were very different.":
From Cynthia's brother Bob:
Cards and letters following the premiere:
A lot of our family and friends came down to Dorset to see the opera and incorporate it with a holiday. Steve Melia, chairman of the Wednesbury Music club, came too and asked if we would perform the opera in Wednesbury the following year.
So Far from the Madding Crowd was given a second run of performances on August 29th, 30th and 31st 2007 at the Church of St James the Great, Wednesbury. Funding was provided by the Wednesbury Music Club, in celebration of it's 60th anniversary. This time Ann Nation directed the production and artist, Richard Coyle, created scenery on screens.
Paula Downes as Bathsheba and Alison Hill as Maryann Money, Central England Ensemble.
Left to right: Lucy Pickford, Mike Price, Matthew Price, Simon Walton as Troy, Ben Sawyer, Stuart Pickford, Paula Downes as Bathsheba and Jonathan Pugsley as Gabriel Oak.
Jonathan Pugsley as Gabriel Oak.
Jonathan Pugsley as Gabriel Oak and Paula Downes as Bathsheba.
David Trippett, Musical Director.
Left to right: Emma Rothman as the Aunt, Stuart Pickford as Joseph Poorgrass, Paula Downes as Bathsheba and Alison Hill as Maryann Money
Lucy Pickford, Chorus member and Katie Pickford as Jan Coggan.
Left to right: Producer and Librettist - Cynthia Downes, Director and Costumes - Ann Nation, Chorus member Lucy Pickford.
Back left to right: Margaret Pickford, Stuart Pickford, 3 Church members, who looked after us.
Front right to left: Andrew Downes, Cynthia Downes, Ann Nation, 2 Church members, who made us refreshments throughout the rehearsals and performances.
From Church Times by Roderic Dunnett:
IT WAS quite a delight to encounter within a short space of time two new operas that deserved the highest accolades. But thus it was; for a few days earlier I had seen Far from the Madding Crowd, a new opera by the Worcestershire-based composer Andrew Downes, which was receiving its first performance in his native Midlands.
This finely sustained, equally narrative-centred new opera was performed in the enabling acoustic of St Mary’s, Wednesbury, by a superb group of vocal soloists, the Millennium Scholars, and an even more impressive bunch of instrumentalists, the Central England Ensemble, under the auspices of and with the generous sponsorship of Wednesbury Music Club.
It was conducted with a finesse to rival MacMillan’s by David Trippett, who has his own Wagner affiliations: he is currently writing a dissertation at Harvard on Wagner’s Lohengrin — with clear echoes of which MacMillan opened his Mabinogion opera.
Andrew Downes’s music seems to me apt and inventive at every turn. Much of the lyrical writing for a baritone Gabriel Oak (the increasingly splendid Jonathan Pugsley) and for the markedly cool-demeanoured Bathsheba Everdene (Paula Downes, the composer’s daughter, a stylish and canny performer) is quite splendid: I was reminded of John Joubert’s Jane Eyre, recently staged in Birmingham: like Joubert, Downes marries an instinctive feeling for a good tune with real substance in the orchestral argument and texturing.
I enjoyed Ann Nation’s splendid costumes, cast blocking and direction, taken from the opera’s original staging in Devon last summer.
There were some glorious performances from some old stagers (Emma Rothman as Bathsheba’s aunt, for instance); and Simon Walton’s Troy was pleasing.
Cards and emails received afterwards:
The year before the premiere in Dorchester, Paula chose the final chorus of the opera for her wedding to David Trippett, who himself became our superb Musical Director for all of the first 6 performances. The final chorus of the opera was sung in the Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, by ex-Cambridge Choral Scholars, directed by Stefan Reid, at the wedding, in July 2005.
In July 2007 the DVD of the opera was projected on to a large screen in the main lecture hall at Yale University, USA, during the Thomas Hardy Conference there: Hardy at Yale: HAY. Here is an email from the organiser following the conference:
The DVD of the opera was used in March 2011 for the presentation of a paper on the adaptations of Thomas Hardy's novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, at the Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle, Paris, by Dr Laurence Estanove.
An excerpt from Far from the Madding Crowd (Act 4 scene 3) was shown on BBC 1 TV on Thursday May 10th, 2012, and also at the National Film Theatre, London, on April 17th 2016.
Paula, with the Central England Camerata, directed by Anthony Bradbury, and led by our daughter Anna, performed 'On the Banks of Allan Water' from the opera in a special opera gala concert in aid of Oxfam, in the Foleyan Centre, Oldswinford Hospital School, Stourbridge, in August 2014.
Our daughter, Anna, created arrangements for Chamber Orchestra of The Shearer’s Dance, The Banks of Allan Water and Harvest Supper, from the opera. She performed them with her students in school workshops, and concerts in St John’s Church, Hagley, and St James’ Church, Wollaston, in July 2012, with her Oldswinford Hospital School Chamber Orchestra. The set is entitled Suite for Chamber Orchestra.
We would love to hear about your experience. Please share it here!
Follow Cynthia Downes on Instagram to keep up-to-date with her blog posts: