Saturday 28 July 2012

The Wolves Descend

The Wolves Descend, Matthew Pearson and Harry Benfield
An upper room in a pub isn't the place that you would normally expect to come across the world premiere run of a new opera. But the enterprising Bristol-based Little Room Productions presented Matthew Pearson's new opera at the upstairs theatre at the Lion and Unicorn Pub in Kentish Town, London. We saw the performance on July 27, so there was an unfortunate clash with another event happening at the Olympic Stadium, but there was still an enthusiastic audience for the 60 minute chamber opera, The Wolves Descend.

This is Pearson's second opera, his first Sanctuary was produced by Little Room Productions at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe. Sanctuary was the winner of the 2012 Raymond Warren Composition Prize, awarded by Bristol University where Pearson is currently studying for a PhD in composition.

Whereas Pearson's first opera was described as being about real people in real situations, his new one, The Wolves Descend is darkly comic. Harry Benfield's libretto sets the story in a comic book Croatian village where the villagers make a living conning tourists into believing that there are werewolves around. Tour guide Matej (Ben Westerman) and inn owners Eva (Victoria Bourne) and Goran (Guy Withers) generate interest by having Tomo (Kester Guy Briscoe) dress up in a wolf's costume, but this isn't working well.

The tourists, Diana (Steph Jack), Kendra (Hayley Louise Guest) and Raphael (Charlie Morris) are a lively and disbelieving bunch. To keep their interest, the locals decide that someone has to die from a 'werewolf attack'. A stray girl visitor, Phoebe (Laura Curry) seems a prime candidate but whilst trying to kill her, Tomo discovers that she is a real werewolf.  Love ultimately conquers the man/werewolf difference and the locals find a new scam to trick the tourists.

Pearson scored the work for small instrumental ensemble, 2 violins, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and cello, which made quite a strong, definite sound in the relatively small confines of the theatre, causing occasional balance problems. Pearson's style is essentially tonal, but with interesting highways and byways, and his instrumental ensemble were kept busy with some lively and strong underpinning of the vocal lines, as well as attractive interludes.

Pearson's vocal lines seem to be eminently singable, which is a big bonus in an opera and one which you cannot necessarily take for granted. He has a strong, vigorous style with a good lyric, melodic feel.

The problem is that comic opera is always a difficult genre and for me, there was a mismatch between Pearson's music and Benfield's libretto. The text was very funny, perhaps too funny, whereas the music seemed eminently serious. Benfield wrote the libretto of Pearson's previous opera, so is obviously attuned to the composer's needs, but I did wonder whether the text of The Wolves Descend suffers from that fatal defect of an opera libretto, that it works as well without the music. Was the comic text too complete in itself?

Pearson did not go far enough in sending up the genre by using an obviously mock-heroic setting. I felt that if you'd listened to the piece with your eyes closed, not taking in the words, you would not have realised you were listening to a comic piece. As a composer myself, I regard the comic opera genre as one of the most difficult, one that I could not see myself attempting. So Pearson is very brave, and he and Benfield have succeed on many levels. The audience around me clearly found the piece entrancing and funny.

I don't think the Elf Lyons's production did the work too many favours. She and designers Emily Howard, and Pam Tait came up with a self-consciously funny folk-Croatian setting with some seriously over done comic acting. The worst off in this respect was Guy Withers who had to play Goran as some sort of hideous, Uncle Fester-like figure. Simply, I think the opera would have worked better given a slick modern production with no self-conscious comic folk element. There was a scary element to the plot which Pearson captured in his writing and more could have been made of this.

With those caveats, cast and ensemble were incredibly hard working and the singers did not shy away from the fact that they were singing barely more than a foot away from the audience. The singers all seem to be from either Bristol University or involved with Bristol Opera. They all delivered Pearson's music with skill and confidence, and did everything that Lyons asked of them.

With young singers involved, the results were vivid and very physical. This was a story that they were all involved in and keen to tell us. The result, for all my caveats, was entrancing, well paced and did not out-stay its welcome.

Pearson himself conducted; besides composing he also seems to be active both as a conductor and singer. His seven instrumentalists were confident and capable, contributing some nice solo moments.

Staging new opera, even on a relatively small scale, is a complex and expensive business. Pearson, Lyons and their team are to be congratulated on having the vision to see the project through and to create something which certainly deserves further performances.

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