Donald Swann’s lost opera, based on the book by C.S. Lewis, has long been overdue for rediscovery.
Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, Michael Flanders & Donald Swann were the toast of the West End and Broadway with their two comic shows, At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat. It was during a run in New York that Donald Swann began to look for a more serious project, and suggested to his Oxford collaborator David Marsh that they create an opera based on C.S. Lewis’s novel Perelandra, which both admired.
The piece was four years in the writing, with the approval and collaboration of C.S. Lewis. In 1962, Lewis wrote to Marsh: ‘I think [the libretto] just stunningly good. It brought tears to my eyes in places’. Done right, ‘it will be terrific. I very heartily congratulate you’. The opera was also very dear to Swann’s heart, and contains some of his most lyrical music.
The opera was performed in concert in Oxford, Cambridge, and at the Mermaid Theatre, London in 1964, and in a student stage production in Haverford and New York City in 1969. It was well received. For The Wall Street Journal, ‘Swann’s score is always effective theatre music, tellingly keyed to the shifting dramatic tensions, and rising at moments to scalp-prickling power and threat. At other times it has a lambent lyricism’. For The New Yorker, ‘soaring choruses and very singable arias follow one another with seemingly endless fecundity’.
However, the sale of the film rights shortly after Lewis’ death placed an effective embargo on any dramatic representation of Perelandra. As a result, although the legal situation has now changed, the opera remains largely unknown, remembered only by a handful of admirers. The time is overdue for a new appraisal of this captivating and challenging work.
The Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, with the permission of the Estates of C.S. Lewis, Donald Swann and David Marsh, produced Perelandra in its original, three-act form as a ‘theatrical oratorio’ in the summer of 2009. The performance run was augmented by a high-quality archive recording to assist potential future producers in its assessment. Jointly, the performance and the recording represent a major step in the reception of both C.S. Lewis and Donald Swann, who singly regarded Perelandra, the book and the opera, as among their finest works.
Exclusive sound clips can be heard on Transpositions.
How about a revival in Scotland?
Also of interest: newly published book C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra: Reshaping the Image of the Cosmos