Monday 20 August 2012

The Mermaid of Zennor

Zennor Head, photo credit Tom Oates
Zennor Head in the evening

The Mermaid of Zennor is the first opera from young composer/conductor Leo Geyer. The opera was premiered in Manchester, where Geyer is currently studying at Manchester University and the Royal Northern College of Music.  Geyer is the co-founder of the ConstellaOrchestra and it was with this ensemble that he premiered the piece, bringing them to this year’s Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios for further performances, where I saw the second performance on 19 August.

The work is a compact piece, lasting just 40 minutes, eminently sensible for a first opera. Geyer and his librettist, Martin Kratz (a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University) have already worked together on a vocal work and they collaborated closely on the libretto for The Mermaid of Zennor. The result is a nicely constructed piece of work which is elegantly poetic but does not strain to contain too much in the time allotted.

The story is based on the Cornish legend about a mermaid who becomes entranced by the singing of a young fisherman, who sings the evening hymn every night in church. Geyer and Kratz have chosen not to depict the legend as such, but to give a sideways glance at it. In the opera Matthew (Timothy Langston) is washed up on the sea shore unconscious. His lover, the mermaid Morveren (Harriet Eaves) finds him, but he has lost his memory and they are then disturbed by a hiker. Morveren disappears and the hiker (Amy Webber) finds Matthew who starts to remember fragments of his life with Morveren and the hiker thinks he is raving.  The walker goes for help, so Morveren reveals herself to Matthew. His memory finally comes back and the two go off, leaving the walker to return to empty sand.

Geyer has set the opera for just the three singers and an eight part instrumental ensemble (flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn percussion, harp, viola and bass). The piece opened with a poetic and beautifully realised instrumental prelude which rose out of the sounds of the waves. Throughout Geyer’s writing for the instruments was poised and sparely elegant. Even in a studio theatre with the instrumentalists placed next to the singers, Geyer’s writing was such that balance was never the problem that you might have expected.

The libretto left plenty of space for music, so that the piece was punctuated with expressive instrumental interludes and profound pauses. Both Katz and Geyer seem to have a good feeling for what it takes to make a well-constructed opera.

Geyer’s writing is essentially tonal, with quite a degree of chromaticism. Much of his instrumental accompaniment seemed highly textural, with the different textures of the musical fabric being almost as important as the exact melodic lines, individual notes placed with care and economy.

His natural lyrical language seems to be quite chromatic and I felt that the lines given to the singers, whilst singable and expressive, relied a little too much on an instrumental idiom. If you had replaced the singers by instruments, the result would have worked rather nicely. Whilst this isn’t a problem per se, Geyer has not yet learned to write melodic lines which are quite memorable enough. This isn’t a question of writing tunes, but just coming up with motifs which stick in the listener’s brain.

Much of Geyer’s text setting flowed quite naturally as dialogue, with just enough interest and musical expression to lift things from simply narrative. But at key moments, the vocal lines just were not quite striking enough. This was particularly true with the evening hymn, which was first sung by Matthew and then, at the end, by the hiker with Matthew and Morvereen joining in. This did not quite stick in the musical memory the way I wanted it to.

Another musical comment, which is not necessarily a criticism but more of an observation of how I felt I would have constructed things; I would have liked there to have been a bit more musical distinction of Morveren, particularly when she was singing her solos. I wanted her accompaniment to be significantly different. Geyer did vary his palate beautifully and expressively, but he seemed to treat the three characters as equals rather than Morveren as an exotic from another world.

Florence Wright’s production was simple but effective. Clearly quite portable but making good use of few resources; just a sheet of black plastic with sand on it, some rope and shells, plus the instrumental ensemble decked out with seaweed and fishing nets. Where the production fell down was in the depiction of Morvereen, she had no fish-tail. Now this is always difficult, and but putting her in a slinky red dress with sea shells in her hair did not quite work; she really should looked ‘of the sea’.

The cast were uniformly excellent. Harriet Eaves made an attractive and seductive Morveren, giving poignancy to her moments when she had to anxiously lurk on the fringes of the action. Amy Webster as the hiker did not really ever get the chance for a big moment, but she did get to whistle (which she did well and in tune). As Matthew, Timothy Langston provided a sterling performance, moving from dim maunderings as he came around through vague recollection to full born performance as he recovered. All three had excellent diction which ensured that the majority of the text came through, which is always a good sign in a new piece like this.

Geyer himself conducted, clearly in charge and in control, but allowing the music to flow naturally.  

First operas are often tricky and Geyer and Katz are to be congratulated on achieving so much and showing such elegant control. I look forward to hearing their next offering.

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