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Posted February 8, 2013
The Starlight Express by Edward Elgar is a two-CD set compiled from London and Edinburgh recordings, a production of the Scottish National Orchestra under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis. The setting in Edwardian Britain suggests the world of James Barrie—the respectable family and beautiful children with boundless imaginations. Narrator Simon Callow sets the scenes and describes the actions; the listener is entranced and succumbs to the magic of fantasyland. The premise of having a secret star society becomes airborne, inviting the audience to slip into the starry sky for adventures among the constellations.
Baritone Roderick Williams and soprano Elin Manahan Thomas portray their roles beautifully. The lilting soprano especially is expressive and full of color. The Scottish National Orchestra never falters, providing the mood and background of the story. The accompanying booklet gives the listener essential background, because without an acquaintance with the tale and history, hearing the CDs would be almost nonsensical. Packaging is especially appealing, with the cover showing a fairy silhouette, steam engine, and starry sky. An attractive box contains the separate CDs and well-documented booklet.
The Starlight Express has not reigned in popularity despite the fetching story, first-rate performers, and Elgar’s luscious music. There are several limiting factors: the curious listener must be familiar with the composition or become lost in the back-and-forth of the characters and orchestra; this may be unfairly labeled as a child’s production; the length of the program can lose the attention of the audience; while lovely, the melodies do not haunt and revisit the memory.
The story evokes other flights of fancy including Peter Pan, Wynken Blynken and Nod, and The Polar Express. Bedtime stories with the notion of magical travel for children continue to appeal to storytellers in new generations. Elgar’s invitation to climb aboard The Starlight Express offers the adventurer a ticket for an excursion to the land of fantasy and imagination.