Girls of Summer

The great PHYLLIS CURTIN, who will narrate Façade at Tanglewood this summer, talks to BRIAN KELLOW about William Walton and Edith Sitwell.

Girls of Summer Curtin lg 612
Curtin, set to recite Sitwell
© Hilary Scott 2012

During the glory days of New York City Opera in the 1950s, Phyllis Curtin starred in many new and exciting twentieth-century works, among them William Walton's Troilus and Cressida. It was not one of the company's major successes, but Curtin didn't mind. "The audience reacted to it dully — that's the word that comes to mind," she said recently, from her home in the Berkshires. "Nobody ever talked about doing it again. Reading all these distressing things in The New York Times about City Opera in the last few months, I think back to when I was there. It was such a blessed time. It was a real company. We had such a marvelous, creative time." 

Troilus and Cressida may have been a one-off for her, but in June, Curtin, now ninety, returns to the music of Walton — at Tanglewood, where she has been a major teaching presence for decades. The Mark Morris Dance Group presents Something Lies Beyond the Scene, set to William Walton and Edith Sitwell's Façade: An Entertainment. Sitwell's wildly eccentric rhythms and word clusters made for a magnificent thumbing-of-the-nose at the staid and predictable Georgian poets of her time. The twenty-one verses that make up Façade are written to confound and delight the ear; at the time, they launched a formidable assault on the conventional way that audiences hear poetry. (At the badly received premiere in 1923, poor Noël Coward was so offended that he walked out on the performance; isn't it fun thinking about how Sitwell's verses must have rocked his sensibility?) Take, for example, the ending of "Scotch Rhapsody":

So do not take a bath in the Jordan, Gordon,
On the holy Sabbath, on the peaceful day—
Or you'll never go to heaven, Gordon Macpherson,
And speaking purely as a private person
That is the place
— that is the place
— that is the

Curtin is busily studying the poems and preparing her approach. "What strikes me is how well Walton understands Edith Sitwell as a reciter and as a person. The rhythms he chooses in his music — such as 'bee-uh-muth' for 'behemoth.' I looked it up in the dictionary, and it actually can be pronounced that way. I'm having fun seeing why he has chosen the rhythms he has. I started to listen on YouTube — there's a recording of Sitwell doing it with Peter Pears. It may be that I'm a little bit hard of hearing, but I couldn't understand either one of them!" 

Will Curtin lay on a British accent when she takes the stage in June? "No. I'm going to do it just out of me. And when I think how many accents there are in London alone — who could do anything remotely authentic sitting here in Great Barrington, Massachusetts?" spacer


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