Thursday November 26 2020

A new website has recently been launched to commorate the soprano Jennifer Vyvyan. To mark this new resource for information on her life and career, we feature some material from our own collection that highlights her important connection with Britten.

Jennifer Vyvyan made her debut with the recently-formed English Opera Group in May 1948, taking the role of Jenny Diver in Britten’s realization of John Gay’sThe Beggar’s Opera. She went on to become a core member of the company, and over the next two decades she appeared in a several premieres of the composer’s work.

Jennifer as Jenny Diver (left), The Beggar’s Opera, 1948. Photo: Angus McBean © Harvard Theatre Collection.

Whilst undertaking research for her next Britten role she wrote to the composer in March 1953 to report:

Incidentally, during my avid reading of all the relevant material on Gloriana and her era I’ve lighted on a real blood curdler by one Comyns Beaumont [William Comyns Beaumont’s The Private Life of the Virgin Queen]. Bacon is presented as Elizabeth’s elder son and Essex as the younger by a secret marriage with Leicester. Oh dear!  

Three months later she played Lady Rich in Gloriana’s Gala opening at Covent Garden, marking her debut at the Royal Opera House alongside singers such as Joan Cross, Peter Pears, Geraint Evans, Frederick Dalberg and Michael Langdon.

In September 1954 Jennifer created the role of the Governess in Britten’s adaptation of Henry James’s ghost story The Turn of the Screw, which was first performed at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice. She earned considerable critical praise with The Times noting, ‘Miss Vyvyan’s firm singing of the principal part was a major triumph.’ Admiration of her work came from audience and fellow performers alike. David Hemmings (who sang the role of Miles) recalled lying completely still in her arms as the curtain fell on the final act. Jennifer had ‘just done this unbelievable aria,’ he later recalled for the BBC television film Britten’s Children, and the tentative handclapping that followed soon grew into an ‘absolutely sound-throbbing’ applause.

Jennifer with David Hemmings and Olive Dyer, The Turn of the Screw, 1954. Photo Denis de Marney © Getty images.

She reprised the role for an Associated Rediffusion television film that was broadcast during Christmas 1959. Producer Peter Morley had the foresight to save the tapes and Jennifer’s performance is available to view today.

By comparison, Jennifer proved her ability in opéra bouffe when she played Thérèse, wife of a bemused husband, sung by Peter Pears, in the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival production of Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Her comic acting skills and coloratura voice were in demand when she returned to Aldeburgh in June 1960 to sing Tytania in the premiere of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: her fiery opening confrontation with Alfred Deller’s Oberon contrasting with her entrancing adoration of Owen Brannigan’s translated Bottom.

As Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1960. Photo: Maria Austria © Maria Austria Instituut.

Jennifer’s final Britten role was a very different type of character. A decade after Dream she appeared in the television opera Owen Wingrave, based on another of Henry James’ ghost stories. Jennifer joined a relatively small cast to play Mrs Julian, the mother of Owen’s love interest, Kate (sung by Janet Baker). Each character has their own story to tell and Jennifer gave a convincing portrayal of Mrs Julian’s anxiety over securing an alliance through her daughter’s marriage with the wealthy Wingrave family. ‘She sees her security as a guest at Paramore slipping through her fingers,’ Gramophone commented on her performance in the later Decca recording of the opera, ‘and she does it brilliantly’. Owen Wingrave, Britten’s penultimate work for the stage, was first broadcast on BBC2 on 16 May 1971.

Jennifer’s ‘Britten legacy’ is extensive and comprises many significant recordings. LP releases she made with the composer include The Turn of the Screw, The Little Sweep, Cantata Academica and the Spring Symphony. She can be heard in first production recordings of The Beggar’s Opera, GlorianaA Midsummer Night’s Dream and Owen Wingrave. And she is also featured in Britten’s recordings of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, the latter being the final recording he conducted.

In addition to photographs, programmes for concert and opera performances and, of course, the manuscript music that Britten wrote particularly with her voice in mind, we also hold items of correspondence, some of which throw light on her professional relationship and friendship with Britten. Her final letter to him, held in the Archive, dates from December 1973, six months after Britten’s heart operation, and it reveals much about her generous personality, particularly when one thinks of her own declining state of health at that time.

The relief and joy it was to know that you were improving all the time, not to mention catching a glimpse of that much-loved head at the dress-rehearsal of “Death in Venice” at C.G. [Covent Garden] can hardly be described. As for that towering work, Thank you. And Peter, Ah!

Have a peaceful and happy Christmas. (No answer required for this – it is part of my card)

With much love from Jennifer

Owen Wingrave transferred to the stage at Covent Garden in 1973. During a revival the following year the programme for the 7 May 1974 noted that that evening’s performance was to be dedicated to Jennifer ‘who was to have sung the role of Mrs Julian,’ the part she created four years earlier.

Programme for the 1974 Royal Opera House revival of Owen Wingrave.

Commercially available Britten recordings include:

The Turn of the Screw (Decca) 1955, Jennifer Vyvyan (Governess), Peter Pears (Peter Quint), David Hemmings, Olive Dyer (Flora), Joan Cross (Mrs Grose), Arda Mandikian (Miss Jessel), English Opera Group Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten.

The Little Sweep (Decca) 1955, Jennifer Vyvyan (Rowan), Trevor Anthony (Bob/Tom), Peter Pears Clem/Alfred), David Hemmings Sam), Nancy Thomas (Miss Baggott), April Cantelo (Juliet Brook), Michael Ingram (Gay Brook), Marilyn Baker (Sophie Brook), Robin Fairhurst (Jonny Crome), Lyn Vaughan (Hughie Crome), Gabrielle Soskin (Tina Crome), Choir of Alleyn’s School, English Opera Group Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten.

Spring Symphony (Decca) 1960, Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano), Norma Proctor (contralto), Peter Pears (tenor), Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, boys from Emmanuel School London conducted by Benjamin Britten.

Cantata Academica (Decca) 1961, Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano), Helen Watts (contralto), Peter Pears (tenor), Owen Brannigan (bass), London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by George Malcolm.

Owen Wingrave (Decca) 1970, Benjamin Luxon (Owen Wingave), John Shirley-Quirk (Spencer Coyle), Nigel Douglas (Lechmere), Sylvia Fisher (Miss Wingrave), Heather Harper (Mrs Coyle), Peter Pears (General Si Philip Wingrave/Narrator), Janet Baker (Kate Julian), Jennifer Vyvyan (Mrs Julian), Wandsworth Boys Choir, English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten.

Henry Purcell, The Fairy Queen, Z629, edited by Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst (Decca) 1970 Jennifer Vyvyan, Mary Wells, Norma Burrowes (sopranos), Alfreda Hodgson (contraltos), James Bowman, Charles Brett (counter-tenors), Peter Pears, Ian Partridge (tenors), Owen Brannigan, John Shirley-Quirk (basses), Ambrosian Opera Chorus, English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten.

Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (Decca) 1972, Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau (Faust, Dr Marianus), Elizabeth Harewood (Gretchen, Penitent), John Shirley-Quirk (Mephistopheles, Evil spirit, Pater Seraphicus), Peter Pears (Ariel, Pater Ecstaticus) Jennifer Vyvyan (Care, Angel), Felicity Palmer (Need, Magna Peccatrix), Meriel Dickson (Martha, Want, Mulier Samaritana), Pauline Stevens (Debt, Maria Aegyptiaca), Robert Lloyd (Pater Profundus), Alfreda Hodgson (Mater Gloriosa), solo voices: Jenny Hill, Margaret Cable, John Elwes, Neil Jenkins, John Noble; Aldeburgh Festival Singers, Wandsworth School Choir, English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Testament SBT21515 (2CD) recording of world premiere. Alfred Deller (Oberon), Jennifer Vyvyan (Tytania), Leonide Massine II (Puck), Forbes Robinson (Theseus), Johanna Peters (Hippolyta), George Maran (Lysander), Thomas Hemsley (Demetrius), Marjorie Thomas (Hermia), April Cantelo (Helena), Owen Brannigan (Bottom), Norman Lumsden (Quince), Peter Pears (Flute), David Kelly (Snug), Edward Byles (Snout), Joseph Ward (Starveling), Kevin Platts (Cobweb), Michael Bauer (Peaseblossom), Robert McCutcheon (Mustardseed), Barry Ferguson (Moth), English Opera Group Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten.