Sunday 30 November 2008

Review of Riders to the Sea

The short run of performances of Riders to the Sea at the London Coliseum were intended to be conducted by Richard Hickox. In the event they were performed as a memorial, conducted by Edward Gardner.

ENO and director Fiona Shaw, chose to perform opera alone with a short prologue, rather than trying to fit its austere perfection into a triple bill - something few opera companies have done successfully. ENO obviously miscalculated the demand for the opera as the run had to be extended by adding a further performance later on Friday evening. So that after we had attended the 7.15pm performance on Friday 28th November, the performers would have to do everything again at 9.30pm.

Shaw and her designers Dorothy Cross and Tom Pye used designs evoking the Aran Isles on the West Coast of Ireland. For the prologue Susan Gritton gave a powerful and moving performance in Finnish, Sibelius's Luonnotar, a setting of part of the Kalevala about the birth of the world. Luonnotar is a spirit of the air who drifts through the waves and Gritton had as her back drop evocative vidoes from Dorothy Cross. At the end of the piece we had a short atmospheric interlude from John Woolrich whilst 6 men helped the heavily pregnant Luonnotar out of her boat. These men then helped set up Maurya's house. In fact there was no house, just an austere rocky setting with the house invisible but assumed to be there, indicated by key props like a kettle and a chair.

The men occupied the house until the women, Nora (Claire Booth) and Cathleen (Kate Valentine) erupted into it. We began to understand that these were the ghost of Maurya's already dead sons and husband. The ghost of the recently dead Michael haunted the stage, watching much of the action.

RVW set the text of Synge's play almost complete and eschewed any sort of aria, instead providing the singers with an expressive arioso which reflected the speech rhythms of Synge's Irish inflected English. Shaw got the sort of naturalistic acting from the singers which made sense of this, for most of the opera. Booth and Valentine were strong in the important roles of the daughters. And Leigh Melrose made as much as he could of the short role of Bartley, the sole surviving son whose death triggers the final catharsis.

Patricia Bardon was almost unrecognisable as Maurya, the old woman who is mother to the family. Bardon was severe, but not overly grim and fierce as Maurya which made her more sympathetic than some interpreters.

Though Shaw paced the whole opera well, I felt that from Maurya's 'I seen the fearfullest vision', when she relates seeing the ghosts of her two most recently dead sons, the acting style could have become less naturalistic. The setting did so, as the ghosts of the dead husband and sons came on along with their now lost boats. But Bardon, Valentine and Booth were firmly entrenched in a naturalistic acting style. And I wanted something a little more transcendent, reflecting RVW's ending. I had the feeling that though Shaw was responsive to RVW's music, for her ending she was staging the words more than the music. RVW's music with the great scena at the end for Maurya, 'They're all gone now' helps transcend the bleakness of the action into something wonderful.

Luckily, Patricia Bardon's performance was everything that we could hope for. Here account of the ending was beautifully musical and profoundly moving.

I do hope that this production does not disappear, it proved to be a strong account of RVW's operatic masterpiece and deserves to be seen more.

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