|Guildhall School - Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - John Findon and Chorus- photo Clive Barda|
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 28 2017
A new Chaucer-based opera uses Chaucer's own language to fascinating effect
On Monday 27 February 2017, two new operas were premiered in London, a testament to the enduring liveliness of the operatic form. Rather interestingly both operas engaged with famous historical literary texts. Whilst at ENO, Ryan Wigglesworth's Shakespeare-based The Winter's Tale premiered (we will be covering that later in the week), at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Julian Philips' The Tale of Januarie received its first performance. Philips' new opera (his ninth), is based on The Merchant's Tale, from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and unusually, Stephen Plaice's libretto is written in Chaucer's Late Middle English. The production was directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, designed by Dick Bird with lighting by Mark Jonathan with George Edwards as Priapus, John Findon as Januarie, Daniel Mullaney as Placebo, Jake Muffett as Justinus, Daniel Shelvey as Damyan, Anna Sideris as May, Martin Hässler as Pluto, Elizabeth Skinner as Proserpina, David Ireland as Father Bruno, plus Chloe Treharne, Bianca Andrew and Jade Moffatt.
|Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - Daniel Shelvey - photo Clive Barda|
Within this basic framework, Philips and Plaice have woven a great many strands. The opera is keyed to the seasons, it opens with the townspeople wassailing and throughout there are celebrations and processions which mark the progression of the year. Also, Prosperpina is attended by three nymphs who reflect the coming of Spring, Summer and Autumn, before they all depart for Hades again. The figure of Priapus (complete with a wheelbarrow carrying his huge phallus) forms a sort of narrator, beginning and ending the piece.
The piece seems to be deliberately pageant like and discursive, allowing the students of the Guildhall School of Music large scope, including the use of period instruments. The various processions are accompanied by an on-stage band of flute, viola, harp, medieval fiddle, bagpipes, recorder and percussion, and at one point Damyan accompanies himself with a hurdy gurdy.
During the interval we were discussing the piece, and when he learned that I was reviewing the performance, said make sure you mention that it is great fun.
|Anna Sideris, John Findon - photo Clive Barda|
But there is seriousness too, we grow to feel sorry for Januarie, even though his obsession and jealousy are ridiculous, and the end is very poignant as Januaries pleads unsuccessfully with Pluto to be allowed time to see his son born, and then dies still deceived. Proserpina too has an intense care for the inequality of May's position, and there are a series of dialogues between Prosperpina and Pluto, with the latter regarding the affairs of mortals as simple sport.
|George Edwards - photo Clive Barda|
Philips was clearly at some care to bring variety to the vocal writing, and the opera is peppered with lyrical and comic moments, an aria for Damyan as he seeks to attract a wife for Januarie, a lovely aria for Proserpina to beauty, as well as shorter character moments. The vocal writing certainly does not chug along in the unvaried arioso/recitative beloved of some contemporary operas. And Philips lines, tonal yet challenging, are deliberately varied. Yet the basic pulse of his recitative seemed rather too steady, and despite all this variety the piece felt a little too wordy (Perhaps a reflection of my being uncomfortable with the basic libretto).
|Martin Hässler - photo Clive Barda|
Martin Lloyd-Evans's production was richly imaginative too. Dick Bird's designs were picture-book medieval with a set based around a calendar, and a central tree which moved with the seasons (bare branches to blossom to fruit to bare branches again), this was the pear tree in which May and Damyan would consummate their relationship.
Januarie is a big role and needs an heroic voice, which John Findon provided, managing a nice transition between comic lust, jealousy and poignant regret. He looked convincing too, belying his youth. Anna Sideris charmed as his youthful wife May, but also made the inequality of the marriage apparent even in the comic scenes. As her paramour, Damyan, Daniel Shelvey was handsome, charming and delightfully dim.
As Pluto and Proserpina, Martin Hässler and Elizabeth Skinner brought a seriousness of intent which made their scenes seem far more than a simple diversion, and helped to bring multi-layered depth to the work. And Skinner sang Prosperpina's aria to beauty with beautiful control.
Daniel Mullaney and Jae Muffett as Placebo and Justinus were Januarie's friends, providing a two differing voices commenting on Januarie's wife-getting activities. Chloe Treharne, Bianca Andrew and Jade Moffatt did characterful triple duty, appearing as the three delightfully lusty nymphs but also three serving maids and three townspeople, a female chorus to comment on the action. David Ireland appeared as Father Bruno, the priest who blesses the marriage. Actor George Edwards was Priapus, getting involved by chasing the nymphs (unsuccessfully) during Spring, but generally acting as observer and wry chorus.
|Guildhall School - Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - chorus - photo Clive Barda|
Philips opera is clearly designed for a large company like that of a conservatoire, and I hope that it has a lively further life. I feel that a little pruning might be in order to make the first half a little tighter, but overall this was a fascinating piece. And given a tremendous performance all round from the students of the Guildhall School.
Elsewhere on this blog:
- We're crowdfunding for Quickening, a disc of new settings of Rowan Williams, AE Housman, Ivor Gurney, Christina Rossetti by Robert Hugill coming out on the Navona Records label, please visit http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/quickening
- Superb choral performances: Richard Harvey's Kyrie with Latvian Radio Choir and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir - CD review
- Various Stages Festival: Six operas in development presented by Mahogany Opera Group - Opera review
- Terrific: Weinberg chamber symphonies - CD review
- English Fantasy: Emma Johnson & BBC Concert Orchestra in Will Todd, Paul Reade, John Dankworth and Patrick Hawes - CD review
- Major coup: Premiere of Kemal Yusuf's first string quartet in Norfolk - concert review
- Striking trilogy: Snow, world premiere of opera by three composers from The Opera Story - opera review
- Romanticism and contrast: Parnassius Piano Duo in Parry, Copland and Rachmaninov - concert review
- Diverse and engaging: Alina Ibragimova and the Scottish Ensemble in Bach and Hartmann - concert review
- Discovering the music beneath: Janusz Wawrowski Sequenza - CD review
- I chat to Peter Dijkstra; conductor of the Netherlands Chamber Choir, about the choir's first UK appearance for 15 years - interview
- An immersive experience: Even You Song at Peterborough Cathedral - music theatre review