Finnish Family Opera

10 Apr

I’m a great admirer of Jonathan Dove’s music and his way with opera and I particularly enjoyed his children’s opera The Enchanted Pig as well as both Flight and The Adventures of Pinocchio. He’s someone who enjoys the form, appears to like writing for singers and has a dramatic sense that you don’t often get in composers these days. He’s really grateful to watch and listen to. All of which explains my visit to Swanhunter, his 2009 opera on 9th April at the LInbury.

I left slightly disappointed. It’s billed as a family piece, suitable for anyone aged 8 or over and lasts 70 minutes. It’s based on the Lemminkainen legend from Finland of a young man who goes north to find a wife, has exotic adventures taming the Devil’s Elk and the Devil’s Horse before being killed by a youth that he’s insulted. He’s brought to life by his mother putting his body together again.

In this version it comes across as a rather serious, low key story about the power of singing. The action parts are done wittily and enjoyably and they move quickly. The more serious parts feel slower, the mind wanders and you feel that the level of invention is earthbound. The vocal lines are strange, not beautiful and don’t move or hold the interest.  It’s an opera about the power of music – Lemminkainen sings dogs to sleep, his mother resurrects him with her singing – it’s not dissimilar to the Orpheus legend.  I don’t feel, however, the sense that Dove is trying to evoke beauty when he writes those passages – they go on a bit and sound uninspired.  The opera ends abruptly – shouldn’t there be some sort of celebration here? It lacks the sheer exuberance of The Enchanted Pig. Perhaps it was just me: the audience, made up of a wide variety of ages, was attentive, laughed at the jokes and was very enthusiastic at the end. To me it felt like someone composing in his comfort zone.

It was well done in a co-production between Opera North and The Wrong Sort. Opera North provided singers and orchestra, The Wrong Sort the production and the puppets. Hannah Mulder’s direction was clear, used puppets and costumes nicely – the elk and horse caught just the right level of wit and danger – Death was suitably nasty.  The was a nice sense of improvisation about the staging and it all looked really good.

Justin Doyle conducted the small orchestra with aplomb and the singers were good. Adrian Dwyer as Lemminkainen sang powerfully and had a nice line in innocent heroism.  Ann Taylor as his mother sang committedly and did what she could.  Matthew Hargreaves did a great job as Death and a few other rules and nobody else let the side down.   The believed in the piece and seemed to be having funl.

It’s a pleasant enough piece and it’s short enough for kids to sit through and moves quickly enough.  I did wonder whether it would convert anyone to opera and felt that a really good, funny Barber of Seville might do a better job.  Unlike most of his other work, I didn’t particularly feel the desire to see it again.


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