Thursday 15 August 2013

The Miller's Wife

Cheyney Kent in The Miller's Wife by Mike Christie at the Grimborn Festival
Cheyney Kent in The Miller's Wife by Mike Christie
at the Grimborn Festival
I first came across Mike Christie's opera The Miller's Wife when he presented the first scene at one of Second Movement's Rough for Opera evenings (see my review). Now the complete opera has been premiered (on 14 August 2013) at the Arcola Theatre as part of the Grimeborn Festival with a cast including Owain Browne, Clara Kanter, Susan Jiwey, Margaret Cooper, Cheyney Kent, Tamsin Dalley, Lindsay Bramley, William Morgan, Eleanor Ross, Stella Woodman with Susannah Wapshott at the piano. The opera was presented in the smaller of Arcola's two studio theatres, performed in the round with Matthew Gould's production, designed by Jean Gray, making effective use of the space.

Mike Christie's own libretto tells a story inspired by an event in his family. Set in the 19th century, the first act dealt with the Miller, Bill Marner (Owain Browne) and his desire for a son and complex lovelife. His wife (Clara Kanter) is an invalid and her carer, Maude (Susan Jiwey), is Bill's mistress and having his baby. Except she's not. Stir into this mix a pregnant village girl (Margaret Cooper) and her vengeful father (Cheyney Kent), who thinks Bill has raped is daughter, plus a pair of comic aunts (Tamsin Dalley and Lindsay Bramley) and you have a mix worthy of Catherine Cookson.

The second act takes place 20 year later with Bill's son William (William Morgan) returning to the village to find his mother, falling in love with Jessie (Eleanor Ross) and finding out whether he can marry Jessie because they might be siblings.

The plot has sufficient romance, drama, comedy, incest, adultery and melodrama in it to make it seem ripe for turning into an opera. A weakness of Mike Christie's simple narrative construction is that we already know who William's parents are, I felt the piece would have been stronger if we had been equally in suspense. The libretto is rather long-winded and wordy, Christie seems to have been concerned to emulate Victorian prosody, but this did not sit well with his melodic talents. The word setting was sometimes lumpen and uneven, failing to match the flow of the melodies.

Christie can certainly write a tune, the opera is full of them. But he seemed to lack the confidence to stick with them and develop a good tune. The overall musical style was a continuously melodic arioso with a tendency to restlessness, the music changing frequently and rather too many climaxes on unimportant phrases. The music rarely gave you a sense of what the characters were thinking underneath.

There were memorable moments. There was a lovely little lullaby sung to the baby in act one, but it was fleeting. And the comic scenes for the two aunts were a great delight, Christie charmed because he wasn't trying too hard, here music did define character. The vengeful father in act one was also a good device but though Cheyney Kent had the dramatic opening of the opera, he was vastly under used.

Matthew Gould's production was very effective, if a trifle busy at times. There were moments when I'd wished that everyone would have stopped and let the music develop for a bit, especially in the arias. His staging of the final denoument was awkward in its use of space, so that my companion couldn't see what happened at the crucial moment.

Christie and Gould had assembled a very strong young cast, who delivered the score with confidence and elan. Owain Browne made a strong protagonist and I only wish that Christie had given him some bigger solo moments so that we could understand him more. Clara Kanter did her best with Bill's wife, confined to a wheelchair and not always with it, and Susan Jiwey was hampered to a certain extent by the fact that her character, Maude, was played by a different singer in act two.

Margaret Cooper was the pregnant village girl, whose task seemed to be simply to appear at inappropriate moments and lament. Cheyney Kent displayed a fine voice as her father, though he was woefully underused. Tamsin Dalley and Lindsay Bramley were quite simply a delight as the pair of aunts.

William Morgan and Eleanor Ross as the lovers William and Jessie were both a bit taxed by Christie's big romantic music for their love scene, but both impressed with the credibility of the scene and they made a charming hero and heroine for act two. Stella Woodman was Jessie's mother.

Susannah Wapshott was heroic at the piano, standing in for what was clearly intended to be an orchestral accompaniment and unflappably providing over two hours of music.

A considerable amount of effort went into this performance, from the cast and from Mike Christie and all his supporters. As a composer myself, I am aware of the amount of work it takes to create a two hour opera from scratch, and Christie is to be complimented. But the opera itself still feels in need of a strong editorial hand to bring out its best features. I could not help feeling that a lot of the melodic arioso should be ditched for faster moving spoken dialogue to allow the arias a bit more space and perhaps to allow us to learn more about the characters.

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