It had lain in the archives of the British Library since around 1986. Now, rediscovered by a PhD student and transcribed by Stephen Anthony-Brown, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s opera Thelma has at last received its world première in the capable hands of Surrey Opera.

It’s a small miracle that Thelma, written between 1907 and 1909, came to be performed at all. 2012 marks the centenary of the composer’s death, a century that had forgotten the Croydon composer’s three-act, three-hour opera. Some mystery surrounds its disappearance, although rejection from the Carl Rosa Opera Company was probably a factor.

Unfortunately, the miracles end with its retrieval. The major drawbacks are a saccharine Edwardian libretto and an overly complex, clumsy narrative. Thelma’s redeeming features include Wagnerian motifs and orchestral interludes, which are melody-rich and memorable. The score also includes an effective quartet between the four leads in its latter stages and maintains an engaging musical thread throughout, showing an array of compositional influences.

Coleridge’s opera is set in eleventh-century Norway, Nordic mythology having been in vogue at the time of composition. To cut a long story short, Eric and Carl both seek the hand of King Olaf’s daughter Thelma in marriage, but must retrieve the cup of Olaf to win it. A protective amulet helps them, whilst a malicious spirit, Djaevelen, bargains souls in return for his meddling aide. Meanwhile, Gudrun acts as the tragic but devoted aide to both, saving them from danger and ultimately sacrificing her own life.

The score demands a full symphony orchestra, resulting in Fairfield Hall’s Ashcroft Theatre adding (I am informed) half again to the number of orchestral players normally in the pit. For the most part, the orchestra acquitted themselves well, filling the hall and making up for the lack of excitement in the libretto. The chorus, which featured prominently, enjoyed some lovely tunes and were well choreographed.

The performance by Thelma’s lead roles was spirited but often hammy – again, largely due to the libretto. Portugese Tenor Alberto Sousa’s singing was tidy and direct, although the role of Eric sounded too high for comfort in his voice. Thelma herself is not really fleshed out as a character in the libretto, but Joanna Weeks brought a sweet, sound voice to the role.

Characters’ tendency to suddenly fall to the ground, intoxicated by poisoned snuff, was just one element that came dangerously close to pantomime. Oliver Hunt’s evil Djaevelen was another, rising menacingly up from behind scenery at moments of danger, plotting or romance. Fortunately, Hunt’s tall figure was suitably foreboding and his singing excellent (even if one could be forgiven for wanting to shout ‘he’s behind you’).

The costumes for this production harked back to the spirit of indulgent Wagnerism, and stormy weather projections added a little dynamism, to a colourful, if cluttered, stage.

Thelma is likeable enough, as a score that sweeps the audience along. But it won’t supersede Coleridge’s Songs of Hiawatha in popularity, nor will it lend much to the notion of Coleridge as a ‘Black Mahler’. The libretto desperately needs further adaptation, and its staging needs an update, before it can enter any company’s standard repertoire.

Those interested in finding out more about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor can do so at various Croydon musical events throughout 2012, or see a portrait of the composer (aged 6) at the National Portrait Gallery.

Thelma (World Première), at Fairfield, Ashcroft TheatreKaty S Austin reviews the world première of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's opera Thelma in the Ashcroft Theatre, Fairfield.3