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In Parenthesis

3 Jul

1st July 2016 was about as appropriate a day as it gets to see an opera about the Battle of the Somme.  And the WNO chose this as the last performance of their production of In Parenthesis – about that battle – in their very welcome annual visit to the Royal Opera house.

The opera is based on a poem by David Jones – a modernist synthesis of his feelings about the battle.  I don’t know the poem.  The opera begins with the Bards of Britannia and Germania and moves pretty quickly to the Welsh regiment that will end up, mostly, being slaughtered at the Somme.  The hero, Private John Ball, is one of the last survivors and ends up being surrounded by the Queen of the woods and her fairies.  There are pictures of the regiment preparing for war, moving to the south, experiencing Christmas and then moving to the slaughter.

Iain Bell wrote the music.  There are good things: clear setting of the words, some marvelous choruses.  I’m not convinced that there’s anything here that takes us any further than the Britten of Billy Budd or the War Requiem.  It’s unobtrusive, inoffensive music for an opera that doesn’t have a lot of dramatic tension or interest.  It struck me, as much as anything, as a celebration/centenary piece rather than a particularly dramatic opera or one that would make its way in the repertory.

It was pretty well done.  The cast was excellent.  John Hidlake, a new name to me, was very strong indeed as Bell, the hero and main interest of the piece.  His clear, bright tenor suits the work well and I’d like to hear him in more – he’d be fine in Britten.  As his friend, Lewis, Marcus Farnsworth gave another very sympathetic, clear performance.

Among senior members of the cast, Donald Maxwell as Greatcoat, Graham Clark as the Marne Sergeant and Mark le Brocq as Snell gave well acted, eye-catching performances.  As the Bard of Britannia, Peter Coleman-Wright was in dry voice but gave an experienced performance, even if you weren’t quite sure what the point of his role was.  Alexandra Deshorties as the only female principal, impressed as the Bard of Germania, Alice the Barmaid and the Queen of the Woods: it’s an impressive voice and she sang strongly.

Carlo Rizzi conducted apparently very clearly.  The WNO orchestra was good and its chorus absolutely outstanding in some pretty wonderful choruses.

David Pountney directed.  It was pretty obvious stuff and he didn’t seem challenged or particularly interested in challenging us.  A lot of the stage pictures looked pretty 1950s to me.  Much the same applies to Robert Innes Hopkins’s set.

It was a pleasant enough, moderately enjoyable evening.  I can’t say I’d break my heart if I never saw it again.

 

 

 

 

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Peter Pan Flies In

25 Jul

David Pountney has done an outstanding job in reviving the Welsh National Opera’s artistic drive and one of the welcome developments is the short residency at the ROH each summer.  This year they brought their new production of Richard Ayres’s Peter Pan, less than 20 months after the opera’s premiere.  I saw the first performance in London on 24th July.  Judging by the delays in starting and the lengthy intervals, I’d guess there were technical problems around the transfer to the much larger theatre.  I also found it hard to disentangle my aversion to the subject matter of the opera from the quality of the performance.

I’ve never been much taken by Peter Pan. As a child, the whole thing seemed to me to silly, rather patronising and very slightly frightening.  As an adult it feels nauseatingly sentimental, creepy and silly: an arch idea of childhood and I don’t believe a word of it.  I know that others see it as a fascinating pre-Freudian study of oedipal complexes and the death wish, which somehow makes it worse that it’s fed to children.

So there was probably no way that I was really going to enjoy this opera and I wasn’t much looking forward – it might be a half time job, I thought. #

I was pleasantly surprised to start with. The music was accessible, Lavinia Greenlaw’s libretto seemed to have filleted the novel reasonably succinctly and I decided, after the quite short first act, that I was happy to stay on until the end.
That was probably a mistake. The time in Neverland struck me as both compressed and embarrassing. Ayres’s music seemed less interesting and I started to get very bored. The return to London struck me as perfunctory. I liked the piece much less and was irritated that I was wasting my time.

Ayres’s music is indeed accessible and pleasant enough to listen to. It strikes me as not unlike Jonathan Dove’s, though a bit less astringent. It’s influenced by the minimalists, and there are touches of Stravinsky and Janacek in there – in places I was reminded of Cunning Little Vixen – but I found that it didn’t develop much. There are some nice set piece numbers – for Mrs Darling, for Peter and for Wendy – and it’s a proficient piece without exciting or interesting me.  There’s nothing to frighten the horses and the many parents and children in the audience wouldn’t have been disturbed by it at all.  There’s even the odd tune.  Equally, I didn’t find it particularly memorable or haunting.  It felt efficient.  I felt that I’d quite like to hear more of his music

Keith Warner’s production was pretty and inventive enough – the flying was outstandingly well done and there were lots of little jokes around building blocks, toy trains and so forth. I couldn’t help finding some of it a bit busy and clunky – particularly around the scene changes.   The set looked cluttered and I couldn’t help feeling that, perhaps, a bit more space, would have helped.  I don’t think he solved the problem of adults playing children – it all seemed quite embarrassing.

The cast was good: Iestyn Morris was a vigorous, other-worldy Pan and caught about as much of the character as you can expect – rightly the star of the show and suggesting a very promising dramatic future. Hilary Summers was very strong indeed as Mrs Darling, rather moving in a ditty about tidying up chidlren’s mind (what the f… is that all about?) and Ashley Holland doubled Mr Darling and Hook with aplomb. Marie Arnet sang strongly as Wendy and had nice support from Nicholas Sharratt as John and Rebecca Bottone as Michael. They all gave polished, accomplished performances within the limitations of the piece and the fact that I didn’t believe for a moment that any of them were children.#

Erik Nielsen conducted surely.  The music and performances filled the house well.  He made a good case for the piece and the orchestra struck me as being on pretty marvellous form.

Audience reaction struck me as a bit muted, enjoying the staging but maybe less sure about the opera, though, the children around me seemed to like it.  I won’t be going again, myself, but I could easily imagine it, however, taking off as a pleasant family show.