The Soldier’s Return – Opera Sunderland

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Composer: Marcos Fernandez-Barrero

Libretto: Jacob Polley

Director: Annie Rigby

Musical Director: Marco Romano

Opera Sunderland’s online production of The Soldier’s Return premiered, appropriately enough, at 11:02 on the morning of Remembrance Sunday, immediately after the two-minute silence, and is available to view throughout November. The opera, originally intended to be staged as a live production, has been reimagined as a 40-minute film, produced by Meerkat Films, and using a socially distanced instrumental group and community chorus.

Jacob Polley’s libretto is based largely on interviews with ex-soldiers and deals with the problem of reintegration into civilian life: the Army and the events they have seen remain the greater reality. An extended credits sequence establishes the parameters of the production: against an urgent ostinato instrumental background, voices joining in later, we see members of the community chorus putting on their earphones, a military helicopter circling, cross-cuts between a waiting wife and the train journey home.

The main body of the opera takes place on a bleakly bare stage, even the room’s limited furniture echoing military equipment, to which The Man returns in body, but not in spirit. His relationship with The Woman is tense and distanced. To him the reality is projected in the background: the conflicts of the past 80 years, specifically World War II, Malaya, Cyprus and Northern Ireland, shown by newsreels, posed images and two emblematic figures of soldiers as narrators, eye witnesses and companions.

Marcos Fernandez-Barrero’s music for his small instrumental ensemble under Marco Romano is always dramatic and effective, the percussion particularly compelling, and the excellent community chorus is used subtly and imaginatively. However, for much of the opera, the vocal writing for the principals is less interesting: possibly the lack of variety is meant to reflect the persistence of memory that leads The Man to stack up neat piles of uniforms, each topped by a radio, symbol both of vital communication and Two Way Family Favourites.

Ian Priestley conveys the torment of The Man without melodramatic flourishes, trapped in memories, fears and routines, while The Woman, powerfully sung by Katherine Aitken, seems locked into unrelenting bitterness. Austin Gunn and Andri Bjorn Robertsson blend admirably as the shadowy figures of the two Voices.

In the final third of the opera momentum builds. The warfare on screen seems to invade the room where The Man is now bivouacking rather than dwelling. Annie Rigby’s direction becomes more dynamic, the two Voices more intrusive, The Man more alienated, The Woman more sympathetic. Finally, with a variant on Abide with Me echoing the text, a battered serenity is hinted at as The Man and Woman break up the military camp that he has surrounded himself with.

The Soldier’s Return is admirably conceived and executed as a community project, yet another example of boldness and ingenuity winning out over lockdown restrictions.

Screening HERE until the end of November

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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