Monday 4 August 2014


Cecilia McDowall - Airborne
Cecilia McDowall - Airborne; Nova Music Ensemble, Artistic Director/conductor George Vass, Director Richard Williams
Reviewed by Guest Reviewer Jill Barlow on July 30 2014
Star rating: 3.0

World premiere of a new World War I themed chamber opera by Cecilia McDowall
Premiered in Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead 29/30/31 July, a few days before the centenary of Britain entering the First World War (Aug 4th 1914), Cecilia McDowall got the idea for this short chamber opera from reading 'Sagittarius Rising ', the flying Ace, Cecil Arthur Lewis' account of his experiences as a fighter pilot in the First World War.As Cecilia writes in her programme notes; -'when planes were the most insubstantial affairs, linen on wood, held together with bits of wire, and little between the pilot and the full force of the elements'. ('Airborne' was premiered in a double bill with Stephen McNeff's 'Prometheus Drowned'; see Jill Barlow's review).

As I write this review on the evening of Aug 4th 2014, we must remember that a hundred years ago today, by 10:30pm Britain's ultimatum to Germany had expired and in the famous words spoken by Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey as Britain was about to enter the war :- 'The lights are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime'.

Composer Cecilia McDowall is noted for her vivid textures in orchestration, lyricism, and innovative ideas, which are inclined to suddenly issue forth and surprise us with new dimensions and fresh approach. As Gramophone is quoted as saying of her:- 'she constantly tweaks the ear with her range of spicy rhythms and colours, then suddenly produces a highly atmospheric and grippingly expressive interlude which is just as compelling'.

Well all this was certainly true of the world premiere of her new chamber opera 'Airborne' which I went along to review on 30th July in Hampstead. The production with such a WW1 topical theme, was warmly received by the substantial audience in this apt venue, a Chapel with lofty ceiling for ample acoustics, and plenty of space for the instrumentalists of Nova Music Opera Ensemble under able conductor George Vass to side of the stage.

A One Act Opera in 5 scenes the drama opens with pilot Johnny meeting nurse Alice, a farmer's girl, at the Officers' regimental dance , after an enigmatic prelude sung by Johnny (baritone Henry Manning): 'Roses are shining in Picardy—but there's never a rose like you'. Jazzy rhythms combine with romantic overtones as Donna Lennard's light soprano voice sparkles responsively as the couple waltz in the night air. In scene two Johnny writes to Alice as he flies his plane, 'Airborne' , but intense as the dramatic impact was, from where I was sitting it was difficult to discern the words of the Libretto, but after flying gear having figured on stage, one could figure out Johnny was high in the skies at 'battle stations' with intrepid strains from the instrumental ensemble to match.

Of course it is a mammoth task to try to represent dramatically on stage Johnny's combat missions leading up to the disastrous battle of the Somme JULY 1916, and Alice's parallel experience nursing the wounded from the trenches. However the plethora of model airplanes presented to us by cast members on stage fell short of really illustrating the detail of the fast advancing plot. Nevertheless you could say the very intensity of the music said it all, complete with soulful strings, harp and flute interludes and percussion. This combined with the fertile imagination of the captivated audience especially if they had read Cecilia's helpful programme notes, was enough to 'bring out the handkerchieves', with one audience member near the front, reputedly sobbing throughout.

Everybody's heart warmed to the wartime romance, to be so tragically snuffed out by the tragedy of the 'missing in action' theme so typical of WW1, meant to be 'the war to end all wars'.

It would have been nice if the Libretto in the final scene, when Johnny returns for a last dance with Alice, could have come across with more clarity. Enthusiastic audience members gathered round Composer Cecilia McDowall for full clarification after the show.The gist seemed to be that yes Johnny had perished in the fierce airbattle, but wouldn't have suffered as flying so high to outflank the enemy, would have rendered him unconscious when death struck. All breathed a sigh of relief.' Tissues should have been supplied to the audience-'one said enigmatically.' Some were in tears throughout'.

The last scene closes with Johnny singing 'Rose are flowering in Picardy' -to echo the opening scene. As I write, It's now 7-30pm on the centenary of the start of World War One. I shall be turning out my lights for 10pm to mark the hour when battle commenced – to commemorate.

Composer -  Cecilia McDowall, Artistic Director/Conductor  - George Vass, Director  - Richard Williams
Libretto - Andy Rashleigh
Nova Music Opera Ensemble
Henry Manning (baritone) - Johnny ( pilot in Royal Flying Corps)
Donna Lennard ( soprano)  - Alice (nurse in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service)

Reviewed by Guest Reviewer Jill Barlow
copyright Jill Barlow, 4 August 2014

See Jill Barlow's review of the companion work in Nova Music Opera Ensemble's double bill, Stephen McNeff's Prometheus Drown'd.
Elsewhere on this blog:

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