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date: 19 October 2019

Our Man in Havanalocked

  • Roger Covell

Extract

Opera in three acts by Malcolm Williamson to a libretto by Sidney Gilliatt after Graham Greene’s novel; London, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 2 July 1963.

Set in pre-revolutionary Havana, the opera follows Greene’s novel in highlighting violent comedy in an uneasy society in which the simple materialistic ambitions of a not-very-successful dealer in vacuum cleaners, Bramble (Greene’s Wormold; tenor), on behalf of his spoilt, pretty, horse-riding daughter Milly (soprano), can exploit the gullibility of official espionage. Recruited as a British agent, Bramble invents journeys, agents and information for his expense accounts and submits the working drawings of a vacuum cleaner as the plan of a military installation. His private comedy of incompetence blundering into prosperity brings him an admirer in Beatrice (soprano), a London-dispatched assistant (whose sensational f ‴ ends Act 2) and a puzzled adversary in Milly’s Cuban policeman admirer, Captain Segura (baritone); however, it has fatal consequences for his best friend, the elderly German doctor Hasselbacher (bass), and brings disaster to the namesakes of his imaginary agents. The opera inevitably loses the throwaway humour of the novel but offers in compensation a lively musical representation of Cuban local colour in the orchestral writing (there are two versions: the smaller mostly uses single wind) and through extensive chorus and small solo parts. Set pieces for Milly (characterized by waltz tunes), Bramble, Beatrice and the chorus, and a long and effective dying scene for Hasselbacher help give shape to a melodious, rhythmically resourceful and occasionally surprisingly dissonant score in which intricately subdivided arioso and recitative passages and some difficult solos and ensembles in irregular metres exist beside racy or pious simplicities with ancestry in contemporary musicals....

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