Music: Jonathan Dove
Libretto: Alisdair Middleton
Director: Hannah Mulder
Musical Director: Justin Doyle
Reviewer: David Gann
This production is a synchronistic experience. Opera was never meant to be naturalistic or one-dimensional; its roots are in the neo-Greek ideals of ‘chorus’ and ‘heroes’ and include a full range of expressions. This piece taps into that paradigm, as the six singers are both ‘chorus’ narrator/commentators as well as ‘characters’ as they take us on their epic tale.
Greek theatre also uses masks, and the use of puppets to depict journeys and mythic animals make way for coat and boots to signify the body of the dead hero, and singers to be devilishly metamorphosed by masks – all underpinning an aesthetic of tale-telling of elemental theatricality.
The set, designed by Rachael Canning, cleverly frames the piece. Starting outside the ‘story’ with tents, camper clothes and suggestions of the great outside, it allows these very ingredients to become transformed by the journey of the tale. There is always a sense that it is night-time, so the lighting, designed by Richard Howell, is eminently effective, painting the set with roving laser beams, shimmering water and seductive shadow effects that greatly add to its magical qualities.
So we come to the music. This is a chamber opera and the vehicle for telling the story is very definitely rooted in the music and the singing. The libretto is carefully constructed to carry the simple lines of the folk tale, but also to underpin the musical contours; harnessing the dramatic impetus within musical structures. We are back with synchronism.
Dove is a real master of his art. He has an innate lyricism in all that he writes; eminently sing-able and moments of beauty and emotional charge. The punctuated choral narration or sustained quintets before each of the trial ‘journeys’ is set against a series of more developed solo arias, often coloured differently by one of the six-piece band – lyrical violin, edgy accordion, sinister double-bass, jokey horn, magical harp or the many different percussive timbres and rhythms.
The singers are crisp and professional in the ensemble sections. The Swan aria (Susanne Shakespeare) is virtuosic in its high tessitura, and beautiful (skilfully manipulating the swan puppet as she sings). Adrian Dwyer has a powerful and dramatic tenor voice that succeeded in maintaining command even when set against the choral textures. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones has some delicious moments as her character seduces the hero into more and more trials with the devil.
Ann Taylor as the mother is passionate and compelling, though her lower register seems slightly lacking, and the highly charged lament (that concludes the piece) on this performance didn’t quite have the vocal impact that it needed.
But perhaps this is more the fault-line of the piece; maybe we never really sufficiently care about its slightly arrogant hero (full of himself and his magical powers) and don’t really admire a mother that so jealously guards her son?
This production is nevertheless beautifully directed by Hannah Mulder, and the artistic partnership with The Wrong Crowd successfully contributes to a theatrical eloquence that continues to distinguish Opera North as they pioneer new work in the field.
Runs until: Touring until May 3rd. Reviewed on 24th April 2015