Dame Sarah Connolly performs as the Angel in Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius on Saturday 1 June at Leeds Town Hall. The Dream of Gerontius is one of the great English choral works and follows Gerontius' journey from his deathbed to Purgatory. On his journey, Gerontius encounters friends, angels, demons and souls who help him navigate the path which lies ahead of him. We had a chat with Sarah before this concert, read on to find out what she had to say.
Hi Sarah, thank you for taking the time to speak to us. What are you looking forward to the most about performing as the Angel in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius?
It’s a huge honour to sing this glorious work. Each time I sing the Angel I’m always looking to bring new understanding, inspiration and fresh insight. Every performance will be different and much of the energy will depend on the chemistry and interaction with my excellent colleagues. I recorded Sea Pictures with Simon Wright and given that we recorded five major orchestral songs in one session (3 hours) is evidence that we have the same feelings about to Elgar! David Soar who sang on our Chandos recording with Sir Andrew Davis and Barry Banks will bring immense commitment to their characters and I can’t wait to respond to that.
The Angel is an important role in The Dream of Gerontius. Could you explain your thoughts on the bond between the Angel and Gerontius please?
Gerontius feels himself "changed": he is refreshed, free, more himself than he has ever been. The Angel is unchanging and in charge of him.
I’m not convinced that Elgar draws any difference between the feminine Angel and male Soul. Gerontius sings, “I will address him...” I see the question & answer conversation more in terms of a patient & psychiatrist or with a priest. The answers are wise, all-seeing, informing, all-loving and all-accepting. Both Angels will plead his case to God with humility and some certainty that all will be well after he has experienced a night of trial, which mirrors that of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The important difference is that at last the Angel can communicate with Gerontius directly, which has not been possible during his earthly life. He is able to ask the spiritual questions he has always craved the answers to. Don’t we all?! The idea that we all have a guardian angel who is within us or beside us constantly is very appealing and comforting.
Are there any parts of the piece that are challenging?
Of course but if I get too specific you might feel anxious for me! There have been challenges to performing The Dream of Gerontius due to ill health, unhelpful conductors and overzealous ushers! I survived a performance with a bad sore throat and on another occasion with food-poisoning. I have sung it with conductors who have taken the piece criminally fast and slow - the former made me very cross, the latter grateful I had survived. I have even been physically prevented from entering the building by ushers who refused to believe I sang only in the second half and that I wasn’t wearing a security lanyard over my concert dress! There’s quite a story there for a different article I think.
What is the one thing you’d like audiences to take away from The Dream of Gerontius?
Whether one is a Christian or not, the humanity of this music is overwhelming. I’m sure we would all like to believe in a blissful afterlife with a guardian angel watching over us. I would hope that the whole piece stimulates powerful emotions and ultimately memories of those we love who are not with us physically any more.