Paul Corfield Godfrey, Epic Scenes from The Silmarillion after the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien, Part Two: Beren and Lúthien (double CD 2019) [Pima Facie Records]

During the 1980s and 1990s, London-born/Wales-based composer Paul Corfield Godfrey undertook to write a cycle of operas based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, each treating one of its four “Great Tales:” Fëanor, Beren and Lúthien, The Children of Húrin, and The Fall of Gondolin. Last year, Godfrey began the ambitious project of recording complete “demo” versions (live voices, sampled instruments) of all four parts of this cycle in collaboration with Opera Volante Productions. The first of these recordings, The Fall of Gondolin (Part Four), was released out of sequence in order to coincide with Christopher Tolkien’s 2018 publication of his father’s corpus of writings on that tale. This helped generate interest in the project, giving it added momentum. The second recording, Beren and Lúthien (Part Two), has recently been released on Prima Facie Records.

Beren and Lúthien is arguably Tolkien’s most accessible tale of the Elder Days. Describing it as an “heroic-fairy-romance,” the author observed that it is “receivable in itself with only a very general vague knowledge of the background” (Letter 131). This was certainly my own experience as I listened spellbound to Christopher Tolkien’s abridged reading of the published version back in 1977 on Caedmon Records. Battle, Betrayal, Romance, Magic, Mortality – the story taps into some of our deepest drives with an immediacy and potency that never diminishes. In other words, it is perfect material for operatic treatment.

Clocking in at exactly 140 minutes, Godfrey’s adaptation is not an exhaustive performance of Tolkien’s tale. Instead, as its title indicates, it selectively depicts key “scenes” from the story that capture its essential ingredients. These scenes (nine in all) are grouped into three “triptychs” and encapsulated by a prologue and epilogue. In contrast with The Fall of Gondolin (which is similarly structured), Godfrey found it desirable to alter, omit, or compress certain details of the Beren and Lúthien story in order to simplify the plot and coherently link the scenes.

Some of these changes are fairly minor (from a dramatic standpoint) and do not significantly affect the flow of the narrative. For example, in the legendarium, Finrod gives his ring to Beren’s father, Barahir, as a reward for Barahir’s valor in the Battle of Sudden Flame; in the opera, while Barahir is still identified as Beren’s father, it is Beren who distinguishes himself on the battlefield and receives the ring directly from Finrod. This alters the wording but not the substance of Thingol’s dialogue with Beren in Scene Four.

BEREN: Death you can give me earned or unearned; but the names I will not take from you of baseborn, nor spy, nor thrall. By the ring of Felagund, that he gave to Barahir my father on the battle field of the North, my house has not earned such names from any Elf, be he king or no.

THINGOL: I see the ring, son of Barahir, and I perceive that you are proud, and deem yourself mighty. But a father's deeds, even had his service been rendered to me, avail not to win the daughter of Thingol and Melian. BEREN: Death you can give me earned or unearned; but the name I will not take from you of baseborn, nor spy, nor thrall. By the ring of Finrod Felagund that he gave to me on the battlefield of the North, my house has not earned such names from any Elf, be he king or no.

THINGOL: I see the ring, son of Barahir, and I perceive that you are proud and deem yourself mighty. But deeds alone avail not to win the daughter of Thingol and Melian.

Other omissions are more impactual. The character of Huan, the sentient Hound of Valinor, who plays a major supporting role in Tolkien’s story, is missing from the opera – perhaps understandably, as it would be difficult for a human actor to credibly impersonate a dog on stage while conveying the gravitas of that character’s words! Huan’s disappearance also means there is no final battle between him and Carcharoth, the Wolf of Angband – who does appear in the opera. Instead, Beren succumbs to Carcharoth’s dismemberment of his hand after delivering his climactic lines before Thingol. (The fate of the Silmaril devoured by Carcharoth is not addressed.) In the absence of Huan, Lúthien herself gets to deliver the hound’s crucial speech:

From the shadow of death you can no longer save Lúthien, for by her love she is now subject to it. You can turn from your fate and lead her into exile, seeking peace in vain while your life lasts. But if you will not deny your doom, then either Lúthien, being forsaken, must assuredly die alone, or she must with you challenge the fate that lies before you—hopeless, yet not certain. From the shadow of death you can no longer save me, for by my love I now am subject to it. You can turn from your fate and lead me into exile, seeking peace in vain while life lasts. But if you will not deny your doom, then either I forsaken must surely die alone, or I must with you challenge the fate that lies before you: hopeless, yet not certain.

While there is an obvious logistical need to shift these words to a different character (and Lúthien is the only one on hand to deliver them), I felt this actually enhanced Lúthien’s agency, allowing her to speak for herself rather than being spoken for – which is consistent with the initiative she takes elsewhere in the canonical tale. I draw attention to this because most of Godfrey’s speech-switching decisions do not seem to me to be merely mechanical or dictated solely by necessity; they have a positive effect on the capacity of the libretto to convey the emotions of the story.

One of the interesting choices Godfrey makes concerns the conclusion of the story. In contrast to the published Silmarillion, in which Lúthien’s prayer before the Powers grants both her and Beren a renewal of (mortal) existence on Middle-earth, the opera follows an earlier, fragmentary ending to the Lay of Leithian (HoMe III.308-309) that leaves the lovers’ fate uncertain. The opera’s libretto offers a similar lack of closure:

Mandos, a shrouded figure at the centre of the semicircle, raises his hand. Lúthien dies upon the body of Beren—or, indeed, it may be that Beren rejoins Lúthien in life.

Godfrey’s preference for ambiguity, again, is not, I suspect, purely a matter of dramatic expedience. It speaks to the fluidity of the Beren and Lúthien tradition as Tolkien left it to us – and as his son has amply documented in his 2017 book on the subject:

“In this way, also, there are brought to light passages of close description or dramatic immediacy that are lost in the summary, condensed manner characteristic of so much Silmarillion narrative writing” (p. 13).

Godfrey’s libretto, which freely alternates among the different extant versions of the story, capitalizes on such passages. The result, textually speaking, is a patchwork; from an operatic standpoint, however, it’s a tour de force of words delivered with passion and epic grandeur. This is hands-down the most potent actualization of Tolkien’s writing I have heard to date.

Much of its success is to be credited to the members of the Welsh National Opera who have contributed their consummate vocal skills to the project. Julian Boyce (baritone), who voices Beren, adroitly captures the indomitable resolve of Tolkien’s hero. (See especially his delivery of Beren’s oath to avenge Gorlim in Scene Two.) Jasey Hall (bass) exudes diabolical villainy in his volcanic portrayal of Sauron. (See his exchange with Lúthien in Scene Six.) As Lúthien, Angharad Morgan (soprano) deploys her high range to convincingly convey her character’s divine power. (See Scenes Six and Seven.)

Godfrey’s scene selection, like his text selection, privileges the mood and atmosphere:
• Prologue: The Battle of Sudden Flame
• Scene One: Gorlim’s betrayal and Beren’s escape
• Scene Three: Beren meets Lúthien
• Scene Four: Beren before Thingol
• Scene Five: Beren before Finrod
• Scene Six: Beren’s capture and Lúthien’s rescue of him
• Scene Seven: Beren and Lúthien before Morgoth/escape from Angband
• Scene Eight: Beren’s death
• Scene Nine: Lúthien before the Powers
• Epilogue: Lúthien dies (or is reborn)

As the opera progresses, recognizable motifs are established for key characters and events. What I appreciate as a listener is how Godfrey allows time for each of these themes to emerge organically from the narration and dialogue. There is no rushing from one scene to the next; it takes however long it takes. This is especially true of Scene Three, which marks the introduction of Lúthien and the love theme. One of the ways Godfrey draws this scene out is by interspersing first-person dialogue drawn from the Lay of Leithian with third-person choral chanting of Aragorn’s re-telling of the tale from The Fellowship of the Ring. This gives the viewer/listener both “interior” and “exterior” views of the lovers’ fateful encounter. Another interesting juxtaposition of Silmarillion with Lord of the Rings material is in Scene Six, where Godfrey uses Sam’s song in the Orc-Tower (calling for Frodo) as the lyrics for the call and response Beren and Lúthien sing to find each other in Tol-in-Gaurhoth.

As with The Fall of Gondolin release, the liner notes for Beren and Lúthien are handsomely adorned with Ted Nasmith’s artwork and contain helpful explanations of what is happening in each scene. There is also a link to Godfrey’s website that contains the full libretto along with citations of Tolkien’s sources that were drawn upon for each portion of it. The only thing lacking is a live performance of this work with a real orchestra. Let us hope that, with the release of the remaining two demos, interest in Godfrey’s operas will reach a critical mass and invite a live production of the whole cycle. Now that would be epic!

REVIEWER: Chris Seeman (