Thursday, 16 February 2017

Unexpected operatic premiere

I was back on duty, celebrating the midweek Eucharist at St John's Canton this morning. Clare has been doing battle with the internet, trying to obtain confirmation of tickets booked on line for a string quartet concert here tomorrow night, thankfully handled by an agency, not by the Parish! She had trouble with the ticketing website, which sent confirmations and info relating to password changes that ended up in the Spam folder, as often happens, except the spam folder wasn't in evidence. I looked for it and missed it, as for some reason it requires scrolling to find, rather than being near the top of the display, which would be a more useful default, given the common need to manage spam messages frequently, or go crazy, unable to tell the wood from the trees.

After lunch I had a bereavement visit out in Danescourt. Now I am fully briefed on the three funerals at which I have to officiate next week. At six we took the X1 bus to town, then the Bay Car to the Wales Millennium Centre for an evening at the opera. I knew nothing about what we were about to see, and nothing about Frank Martin, composer of 'Le vin herbé.' We were surprised to discover that he was a 20th century Genèvois, and that it first saw the light of day in London with an English liberetto by Hilaire Belloc, seven months before it premiered in Zurich, either in French or German, both in 1948.

Le vin herbé translates into English as the Love Potion. The story told is that of Tristan and Iseult, also used by Wagner in his opera of this name in the late German Romantic mode. Martin, on the other hand, was musically in a similar vein to Benjamin Britton, wonderfully rich creative use of dissonance, but not atonal, nor making use of fractured rhythms. It's not a long opera, short enough to be delivered with no interval in an hour and three quarters. A spell binding hour and three quarters, as the production did not fail to retain one's attention throughout.

First - no scenery, minimal staging. Costumes? Black and black. Tragic Iseult alone appearing in white and later in gold. The libretto makes use of the fifty strong WNO chorus, as the means to tell the story, with chorus and individual voices, just a handful of roles being distinguished by the movement required of them. Belloc's libretto is a simple rendering of a classic story with group narration and passages of quoted speech from key characters delivered by individual singers. Group choreographed movement of the storytelling chorus was also an important element of the presentation. It made us think of Greek tragedy performances we last saw fifty years ago.

The stage is bare, minimal furnishing. A string sextet plus piano and conductor are centre stage throughout, the cast move around constantly. The backdrop is black, everyone save Iseult is dressed in black. So much depends on stage lighting, and it works superbly, from the start. There's no curtain, and the lights don't go down immediately either. The cast take their positions and stand still looking into the audience until they have everyone's attention, a bit like a teacher with a distracted class of pupils.

When all are settle, out of complete silence, the music and voices emerge. The audience is sitting at the feet of a storyteller, in this case a group of fifty. It's intense and engaging from the outset. As ever the singing by principals and chorus is excellent. Only as it was starting did I learn that it's the premiere of this WNO production.

The house wasn't totally full as it often is. I suspect that this 20th century opera lacks the glamour and pull of Mozart, Verdi or Puccini favourites, yet, it's music of our lifetime, and an inspiring effort made by Martin to connect with the ancient tradition of storytelling, which transcends culture and keeps being reborn in the artistic endeavours of rising generations. This production, and all who take part in it are a credit to our other major Welsh national past-time, the difference being that great opera always wins.

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