Monday 19 August 2013

Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival - a third helping

Grant Doyle, Rebecca Askey, Rebecca Thorn & Hazel Holder in Dart's Love by Kerry Andrew and Tamsin Collison , (c) Claire Shovelton
Grant Doyle, Rebecca Askey, Rebecca Thorn & Hazel Holder
in Dart's Love by Kerry Andrew and Tamsin Collison
(c) Claire Shovelton
For our final visit to Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith on Sunday 18 August 2013 we caught two operas, Richard Barnard's The Hidden Valley which was commissioned by WNO MAX and Kerry Andrew's Dart's Love which was commissioned by Tete a Tete. The two were linked in a number of ways, both dealt with a watery river theme combined with love: in Barnard's opera a cow herder falls in love with the daughter of the River God, in Andrew's opera the River Dart itself is in love with a young man who swims there. But both operas also featured the talents of Kerry Andrew, her vocal group Juice Vocals sang in Barnard's opera whilst she composed Dart's Love

The Hidden Valley was performed by Laura Pooley, Owen Webb, Meillir Jones, Tome Lowe, Alexei Winter, Michael Lowe and Juice Vocals, conducted by Richard Barnard and directed by Dafydd Hall Williams, with designs by James Helps. Dart's Love was performed by Grant Doyle, Claire Wild, Rebecca, Askew, Rebecca Thorn and Hazel Holder, conducted by Timothy Burke, directed by Bill Bankes-Jones and designed by Tim Meacock.
Owen Webb, Laura Pooley and Tom Lowe in he Hidden Valley by Richard Barnard and Alan Harris (c) Claire Shovelton
Owen Webb, Laura Pooley and Tom Lowe in
he Hidden Valley by Richard Barnard and Alan Harris
(c) Claire Shovelton

Richard Barnard's The Hidden Valley, setting a text by Alan Harris, was commissioned by WNO MAX and is a development of Barnard and Harris's community opera, The Journey, created through WNO Max projects. On Midsummer's Day a young cow-herder Dewi (Meillir Jones) falls in love with Ariene (Laura Pooley), daughter of the River God, Mordred (Owen Webb). Mordred himself fell in love with a human woman, who fell ill and died, so he does not want his daughter to suffer in the same way. Mordred  hides her and tells Dewi that he can have Ariene if he can find her. In fact, Mordred has transformed Ariene into an animal and each year she changes into a different one. Years pass, Dewi marries for companionship rather than love, and after his wife dies he realises that a wren he sees is Ariene. Mordred is furious. He offers Dewi a year with Ariene, he will transform Dewi into the same animal as Ariene and they will spend a year like that, then Dewi will die. Dewi accepts, but Mordred realises the power of love and gives his crown to Dewi. The opera is introduced by a crowe (Tom Lowe) telling the story to a young crowe (Alexei Winter), and throughout the crowe is a commentator and advisor to Mordred. Juice Vocals (Anna Snow, Sarah Dacey and Kerry Andrew) provided vocal backing, commentary and occasional small solos and were joined in ensembles by Alexei Winter and Michael Lowe. Barnard himself conducted the band, Manos Charalabopoulos on piano, Julia Hammersely on harp and George Jones on percussion.

Barnard's music wove folk elements into more complex strands, with the musical material being rather eclectic but synthesised into a single rather fascinating texture. Much of his orchestration was evocative and rather spiky in texture and the write for Juice Vocals clearly took advantage of the vocal techniques that they like to use. There were melodic sections and with arias and some very powerful ensembles, but there were also edgier moments with the music clearly pointing a moral in this story. Barnard was clearly helped by Harris's literate and poetic librettos. There was plenty of space for the music and there were lots of instrumental interludes to set the piece off and help develop the atmosphere.

The three protagonists were well drawn and we were made to feel for all of them. Laura Pooley impressed not only with her fine lyric voice, but also with the way her movement suggested the various creatures that she was turned into. Dewi was perhaps the most reactive of the characters, but Meillir Jones made a personable, everyman of the hero with a nice turn of strength at the end. We really felt for Mordred, and Owen Webb's impressive performance ensured that we understood the character's reasoning, Mordred seemed to be the most developed character and the most complex.

Tom Lowe was brilliant as the crowe, giving a suitable sharp and rather ironic view of the world. You almost wanted more of him, and it was a shame that the character was not brought back at the end, as the plot summary suggested. Juice Vocals (Anna Snow, Sarah Dacey, Kerry Andrew) , Alexei Winter and Michael Lowe were all hard working, moving from chorus work so solos as necessary and providing an aural backdrop for the action.

Barnard's writing moved fluidly between naturalism and less concrete, and Dafydd Hall Williams production followed this and we were treated to a highly flexible presentation. James Helps simple but evocative designs incorporated trees and the natural world, whilst helping us to follow the plot. There was a clear moral to the story, whilst Barnard and Harris ensured we understood this they also made sure we cared for the characters.

Barnard was the capable musical director with fine support from the three musicians, Manos Charalabopoulos, Julia Hammersley and George Jones.

At 90 minutes long without an interval, the work was perhaps 10 minutes too long and the ending could have done with a slight bit of pruning, whilst I definitely wanted more of the crowe. But this was an immensely impressive and confident performance which made me hope so see more of Barnard's work.

Kerry Andrew's Dart's Love was a rather shorter piece, just 30 minutes in length, inspired by the composer's love of wild swimming. It told the story of a young swimmer (Grant Doyle), who swims regularly in the River Dart (played by Rebecca Askew, Rebecca Thorn and Hazel Holder). He brings along a female companion, Claire Wilde, the river gets jealous and drowns the girl, the boy never returns.

The libretto is by Tamsin Collison and Andrew's setting was accompanied by just guitar, clarinet, percussion and piano, played by members of Chroma, conducted by Timothy Burke. Bill Bankes-Jones production (designed by Tim Meacock), was simple and elegant. The piece opened with the three women playing the River Dart dressed in old lace and idling on swings, as the river became more agitated so did the swings. The fury of the river at the crucial moment was represented by a cascade of tiny polystyrene balls falling down.

Andrew's writing for the river was dazzling. The piece opened with little fragments and wisps, of spoken, of melody, of percussion. The river never really had a true melodic voice, instead it was a combination of rhythms and timbres which built into a highly seductive flow of sound, but Andrew also knows the benefit of silence. This was written by someone who had clearly swum in such a river and enjoyed the peace and the quiet music. In addition to the standard percussion, at a key moment when the young man goes into the water for the first time, we had the pianist playing musical glasses and the clarinettist playing two small tam tams.

As a sort of tone poem about the river this was magical, full of wit, humour and miraculous orchestrations, with entrancing performances from the three singers, Askew, Thorn, and Holder who brought humour, technical skill and passion to their performance.

Where it fell down was in the depiction of the humans. Grant Doyle was very personable as the young man, but despite working hard could not disguise the fact that the man's vocal lines were rather uninteresting, and simply not complex enough to enable Doyle to invest them with passion at the critical moment. His girlfriend, Claire Wild, was played as a bimbo (Doyle was in figure concealing body-suite, Wild was in a figure revealing swimming costume) which was a shame as the character did not need it.

This was too good a piece to lose and there were some superb moments in it, with Andrew showing a dazzling combination of wit and technique in her depiction of the river. I felt that you could almost have dropped the sung parts for the swimmer and his girlfriend and have them as silent roles. Either that, or the vocal writing should be more developed, with perhaps a short scene establishing their relationship.

Bill Bankes-Jones production was highly imaginative, with much physical action for the 'swimming'. He ensured that things flowed nicely and the result in Tim Meacock's designs was very deductive. The players from Chroma (Ian Ryan, Stewart French, Stuart King and Steve Gibson) were exemplary and Timothy Burke was confident yet unobtrusive as the conductor.

This was the final event in this year's festival and both operas were ones that I would love to see again. Both rather different, both perhaps needing a little revising, but both displaying confident voices and a feeling for the creation of opera which was heartening.

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