Saturday 25 July 2015

Richard Ayres' Peter Pan comes to London

Peter Pan in Cardiff - Iestyn Morris (Peter Pan), Marie Arnet (Wendy) & WNO Chorus - Credit: Clive Barda
Peter Pan in Cardiff - Iestyn Morris (Peter Pan), Marie Arnet (Wendy) & WNO Chorus - Credit: Clive Barda
Richard Ayres Peter Pan; Iestyn Morris, Marie Arnet, Nicholas Sharratt, Rebecca Bottone, Ashley Holland, Hilary Summers, dir: Keith Warner, cond: Erik Nielsen; Welsh National Opera at the Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 24 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Strong performances in a slightly disappointing operatic version of the JM Barrie classic

After the work's UK premiere in May, Welsh National Opera brought its production of Richard Ayres and Lavinia Greenlaw's Peter Pan to the Royal Opera House on 24 July 2015. Directed by Keith Warner, and designed by Jason Southgate and Nicky Shaw, the cast featured Iestyn Morris as Peter Pan, Marie Arnet as Wendy, Nicholas Sharratt as John and Ashley Holland as Mr Darling and Captain Hook, Hilary Summers as Mrs Darling and Tiger Lily, Aidan Smith as Nana and Starkey. Erik Nielsen conducted the Welsh National Opera Orchestra.

Ashley Holland in Keith Warner’s production of Peter Pan © WNO. Photograph by Clive Barda, 2015
Ashley Holland in Keith Warner’s production of Peter Pan © WNO.
Photograph by Clive Barda, 2015
Having spoken to counter-tenor Iestyn Morris prior to the work's UK premiere (see my interview), I was intrigued to see the production. Iestyn Morris sang in the work's premiere (in German in Stuttgart), a production which led to the Welsh National Opera bringing in Keith Warner to direct a production rather than taking the Stuttgart one. Richard Ayres and Lavinia Greenlaw also made changes to the piece.

Keith Warner's magical toy-box production with ingenious sets by Jason Southgate had clearly been designed for a smaller theatre and to a certain extent looked a bit swamped on the Covent Garden stage and you did wonder whether it was wise to bring the production here, perhaps Sadler's Wells would have been a more suitable theatre. It did not help that there was clearly a real problem with the lighting, and so we could not really see a lot of the detail.

JM Barrie's Peter Pan is not really part of my mental furniture. We never read it as a child (I was brought up with Gullivers Travels) and I suspect that my main knowledge of the plot comes from the Disney version. So, I have to confess that I found the whole production confusing and puzzling. Luckily (thanks to Disney!) I knew who (or what) Tinkerbell was, so the slightly fuzzy animated twinkle (an animation created by Atticus) made sense, but it might not for everyone. However I could not quite work out who everyone was, the Tiger Lily episode was particularly puzzling, and though Richard Ayres had clearly worked hard to differentiate individuals, all the pirates rather merged into one, and all the children too. That said, the children in the audience clearly loved it; obviously familiar with the book, they were quite at ease with the stage events. But it is perhaps significant that Aidan Smith's Nana got such a big cheer at the end, with her communications only in Woofs, it was always clear who Nana was.

Iestyn Morris, Nicholas Sharratt, Marie Arnet, Rebecca Bottone  in Keith Warner’s production of Peter Pan © WNO.  Photograph by Clive Barda, 2015
Iestyn Morris, Nicholas Sharratt, Marie Arnet, Rebecca Bottone  in Keith Warner’s production of Peter Pan © WNO.  Photograph by Clive Barda, 2015
And here we come to what seems to be the principal problem with the opera, Richard Ayres has not yet managed to capture a distinct sound or sound world for each of his characters. The dialogue for the First Act (all set in the nursery) seemed to blur into one and whilst the detail in the score is admirable, there was a sense of timbral uniformity to the way Ayres treated the voices. I could not help, at this point, comparing the work to Will Todd's very different Alice opera for Opera Holland Park where each character has their own sound (blues for the caterpillar, chromatic slithering for the Cheshire Cat etc) which helped to locate the characters aurally.

Richard Ayres writing for the orchestra was stunning. It needs a big band and the Covent Garden pit was full, but the result were magical and transparent, often filmic in their speed of transition. But he does not seem to have been as comfortable with voices. Having decided on a counter-tenor as Peter, Ayres seems to have denied himself the possibility of making the role aetherial and instead it skittered about over the whole range, with quite a lot of speaking too. Wendy's role was similarly challenging, going up into the stratosphere at times.

I have nothing but admiration for the hard working cast. Peter and the children not only had to sing Ayres complex vocal lines, but flew too! Whatever my views of Richard Ayres vocal writing, there is no doubt that Iestyn Morris coped superbly and wove the character into a real sense of Peter Pan, the slightly no nice, anarchic spirit. He even looked right, with a superb grasp of body language.

The three children were equally impressive, with a lovely sense of child-like attitude and body language. Marie Arnet coped superbly with the challenging vocal lines as Wendy, and brought real charm to the part. Nicholas Sharratt and Rebecca Bottone made a great double act as the two boys!

Some parts were doubles, but not in a way which shed any light on the piece Aidan Smith played Nana and Starker, Nilary Summers played Mrs Darling and Tiger Lily, and Ashley Holland played Mr Darling and Captain Hook. I think that Ashley Holland had been watching re-runs of the Disney film, but whatever the source his assumption of the role of Captain Hook was brilliant. It was clear that he was having great fun, and it was always clear who that character was, and some of this seemed to rub off on Mr Darling too.

I was less sure about Mrs Darling, not because of anything that Hilary Summers did but because the overall depiction of her seemed a bit conflicted. She was displayed as rather casual and perhaps even had a drink problem, certainly not the warm and wonderful mother image. Tiger Lily was in complete contrast and the doubling seemed to have happened simply because it was convenient.

The remainder of the cast were hard working and created a superb ensemble but, frankly, I have no idea which was which! Under Erik Nielsen's capable direction, the orchestra wreathed the score in magic.

In the programme book, Richard Ayres and Lavinia Greenlaw talk about their interest in JM Barrie's story and it is clear from this that their interest was not so much in the Peter Pan story per se, but in Barrie's attitude and evocation of childhood. I think that there is, perhaps, a more adult opera struggling to get out of Peter Pan, one which pauses to consider our attitude to childhood. It is a shame that they did not have the courage of their convictions, because I think that the piece has been too limited by their inhibitions about writing a family friendly piece. But I know many of the young and enthusiastic audience in the Royal Opera House would disagree!

Cast List:
Conductor - Erik Nielsen
Director - Keith Warner
Set Designer - Jason Southgate
Costume Designer - Nicky Shaw
Lighting Designer - Bruno Poet
Choreographer - Michael Barry
Aerial & Fight Direction - Ran Arthur Braun
Peter Pan - Iestyn Morris
Wendy - Marie Arnet
Mr Darling / Captain Hook - Ashley Holland
Mrs Darling / Tiger Lily - Hilary Summers
John - Nicholas Sharratt
Michael - Rebecca Bottone
Smee Mark - Le Brocq
Nana / Starkey - Aidan Smith
Tootles - Simon Crosby Buttle
Slightly - Martin Lloyd
Curly - Laurence Cole
Nibs - Joe Roche
Smallest Boy - Fiona Harrison-Wolfe
Smee - Mark Le Brocq

Elsewhere on this blog:

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