Librettist: Gwyneth Glyn
Composer: Guto Puw
Director: Michael McCarthy
Reviewer: Jacqui Onions
Y Tŵr (The Tower) is a new Welsh-language opera based on the Gwenlyn Parry play of the same name. In three acts, we explore the seasons of life – summer, autumn and winter – each represented by a room in the tower. In a surreal yet evocative metaphor, we follow a couple through these three stages of their life and relationship, as they slowly progress up the tower.
The surreal setting provides the much-needed thread through the piece, giving reason and sense to squeezing so many years into the space of one opera without feeling like the narrative is jumping around. This piece flows in a way that most stories spanning a lifetime simply cannot. The themes within it, however, are far from surreal. This is a timeless story that everyone can relate to and dropping it into the surreal environment of the tower does not detract from it in the slightest or make it any the less believable. The surreal and the everyday marry together seamlessly.
Gwion Thomas encapsulates all three phases of life in a natural and believable portrayal of Gwryw (Male), transforming himself completely from young man, through middle age to the elderly. His mannerisms subtly transform as his character ages and even his beautiful voice seems to age with his character as he sings through the seasons. Caryl Hughes is vocally stunning as Benyw (Female), but lacks the subtlety of performance that Thomas brings. Her enthusiastic youthfulness is overdone and she doesn’t fully embody the aches and pains of old age, with some movements coming too easily to her.
A full-length opera with a cast of just two is quite an undertaking for the performers but Thomas and Hughes, vocally, are faultless. The Welsh language lends itself to song and Gwyneth Glyn has made the most of its poetic nature in her libretto. Guto Puw’s intricate score is the backbone of the piece that brings the story to life, conjuring wonderful imagery – a passing train, a snowstorm – and expanding the world beyond the confines of what the eye can see on stage. There is an edge to the music throughout. Even in the first throws of love, there is an uneasy feeling lurking in the background, which unfortunately makes the big, climactic moments in the story lack the edge-of-your-seat drama that they could so easily command.
The set, designed by Samal Blak, is scattered with items pertaining to the couple’s life. Items from each of the three seasons are present from the start, detracting from the theme of each season relating to a separate room in the tower. The focal point is a ladder towering through the centre, reminding us of the next phase to come. It is strange then that we never see anyone so much as place a foot on the ladder. Moving up the floors of the tower is instead symbolised by the removal of a layer of flooring, oddly replacing the action of climbing with something very grounded. The lack of climbing imagery moves from being a little strange to ridiculous when Thomas sings “Get down,” repeatedly, yet both characters have their feet firmly on the floor.
The climb between floors feels like it should represent the physical transformation as the characters age as well as the passage of time between seasons. Instead, this transformation happens on stage with the characters sitting at dressing table mirrors. This interrupts the flow of the piece and does nothing to keep the audience immersed in the world of the tower. Seeing the actors changing costume and make-up just serves as a reminder that none of this is real, breaking the illusion that the writing and performances have worked so hard to create. One could argue that this is necessary between Acts I and II as there is no break, but when it happens at the start of Act III, directly after an interval, it feels completely pointless.
Quibbles with the staging aside, this brand new opera has much going for it and deserves longevity.
Runs until 20 May 2017 | Image: Clive Barda