Tuesday 21 February 2017

Striking trilogy: Snow, a new opera in three acts with three composers

Rick Zwart, Alice Privett - Lewis Murphy: Snow (act 1) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Rick Zwart, Alice Privett - Lewis Murphy: Snow (act 1) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Snow, JL Williams, Lewis Murphy, Lucie Treacher, Tom Floyd; Alice Privett, Rick Zwart, Polly Leech, Alison Langer, Cliff Zammit Stevens, dir: James Hurley, cond: Christopher Stark; The Opera Story at CLF Art Cafe
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 20 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Three contrasting young composers, one story; The Opera Story's impressive debut with a new opera

Lewis Murphy: Snow (act 1) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Lewis Murphy: Snow (act 1) - The Opera Story
photo Nick Rutter
Snow is the first production from a new opera company, The Opera Story. With a libretto by JL Williams based on the Snow White story, the opera featured music by Lewis Murphy, Lucie Treacher and Tom Floyd (an act each). It was premiered on Monday 20 February 2017 at the CLF Art Cafe / Bussey Building in Peckham in a production directed by James Hurley with designs by Rachel Szmukler and lighting by Ben Pickersgill. Alice Privett was Snow White, with Rick Zwart as the King and Prince Raven, plus Polly Leech, Alison Langer and Cliff Zammit Stevens. Christopher Stark conducted an ensemble of 12 instrumentalists.

The Opera Story was founded by Manuel Fajardo and Hamish Mackay, and for their first production they decided upon a new opera based around the story of Snow White, not the tradition Disney version but one refracted through different European folk tales. JL Williams' poetic libretto took three episodes, and each of these acts was given music by a different composer.

Alice Privett - Tom Floyd: Snow (act 3) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Alice Privett - Tom Floyd: Snow (act 3) - The Opera Story
photo Nick Rutter
To add to the feeling of differentiation, each act was performed in a different space in the Bussey Building so that we started on the third floor for act one, and worked our way down. The performance was given in the round, with the audience sitting and standing, very much an immersive experience. The organisation was impressive, getting the audience moved each time as well as moving the harp and the tuned percussion, no mean feat, but it meant that designer Rachel Szmukler could create three contrasting environments.

Because three different folk-traditions had been used, the narrative in the three acts was to a certain extent discontinuous and director James Hurley used this creatively by keeping Alice Privett's Snow White on stage all the time, an older woman remembering. It was Privett who was key to the performance, being the only character who appeared in all three acts and whose coherent characterisation through three very different operas gave us a thread to lead us through the piece.

Folk-tales are elliptical things, the very quality which makes them tricky to use yet tempting in opera. The tangential nature of the story telling, using archetypes rather than real people, leaves plenty of space for the music. James Hurley's production seemed rather too content to tell the story simply but effectively, leaving any psychological insights to the music. Fairy tales are full of Freudian suggestion. Sometimes directors rather go too overboard in this direction, but in Snow I rather wanted more psychological suggestion.

Polly Leech, Rick Zwart - Tom Floyd: Snow (act 3) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Polly Leech, Rick Zwart - Tom Floyd: Snow (act 3) - photo Nick Rutter
The first act, Three Ravens, with music by Lewis Murphy dealt with Snow White's birth and banishment. Complex issues were raised, the suicide of her mother (Polly Leech) because the King (Rick Zwart) had taken a mistress (Alison Langer) who become the new Queen and banishes Snow White, but not before a scene which implied a more than usual interest between the King and his daughter. JL Williams approached these poetically, Lewis Murphy's music was beautifully evocative, with his orchestration creating some magical textures. Murphy's vocal writing was gratefully melodic, but somehow he did not seem to dig beneath the surface too much. Rick Zwart was a stiffly inhibited King, very much reliant on alcohol and Polly Leech impressed in her short scene as his Queen, whilst Alison Langer made a strong impression in the small role of the mistress who becomes the new Queen. The result was attractive and confident with some profoundly beautiful moments, a promising operatic sketch rather than a finished dramatic work.

The second act, The Death of the Seven Dwarves, with music by Lucie Treacher had a far more intense and dramatic premise. Alone, wandering and desperate, Snow White comes across the house of the seven dwarves, though it is empty. She hides when two village women (Polly Leech and Alison Langer) break in having heard rumours about the dwarves and their treasure, and other sordid tales. They mark the door so the men of the village will know the location and when the dwarves return home they are slaughtered and the cottage set alight.

Alice Privett, Cliff Zammit Stevens - Tom Floyd: Snow (act 3) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Alice Privett, Cliff Zammit Stevens - Tom Floyd: Snow (act 3) - photo Nick Rutter
Treacher is doing a degree in Ethnomusicology and she brought a very interesting voice to the piece. The dwarves did not appear, their voices were simply recorded which was a shame because Treacher's inspiration for them was the polyphonic folk-tradition of Georgia. I think the act would have a very strong impact if the chorus of dwarves was sung live, and perhaps given more to do. The main emphasis here was Alice Privett's Snow White, an intense and strongly moving performance counterbalanced by the visceral nastiness of the two village women (Langer and Leech). Treacher's instrumental writing, with its strong use of percussion, was wonderful and she created some marvellous textures, yet her vocal writing never quite matched this. The angular vocal lines never quite seemed to find their own voice, and the effect of the act relied on the combination of the superb quality of the singers performance with the expressive orchestral textures.

For the final act, The Crystal Casket, with music by Tom Floyd, Prince Raven (Rick Zwart) comes home from hunting dragging a crystal casket containing a dead woman (Snow White), he announces that this is is beloved. His mother, the queen (Polly Leech) is appalled and when the prince goes to war she hides the casket. When he returns, the servant (Cliff Zammit Stevens) goes to retrieve the casket and finds Snow White miraculously revived. The ending of the piece is ambiguous, and James Hurley's direction with the prince returning grievously wounded, gave the impression of the prince and Snow White united in death. The setting here was completely modern, and it had all the trappings of a funeral home, Raven and Sons, an interesting and practical idea, though I felt that something could have been made of the fact that Rick Zwart played both Prince Raven and Snow White's father.

I though that Floyd's music for this act was the most complete, he wrote in a rather dark dramatic idiom with some angular lines, yet created really intense vocal images. The queen was given a really meaty solo which Polly Leech sang superbly, and Rick Zwart was brilliant as the rather strange and disturbed prince. Cliff Zammit Stevens was woefully underused in the opera (he had a tiny part in act one), but he made the servant's short contributions really count.

Lucie Treacher: Snow (act 3) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Lucie Treacher: Snow (act 3) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
The orchestra under Christopher Stark's fine direction played all three scores with style and confidence. The orchestral writing from all three composers was impressive, and the players brought out some lovely textures, whilst coping with having to move between acts and play in locations with atmospheric lighting and audience pressing all round.

This was an impressive first project for The Opera Story, bringing three very different short works to life. All three composers impressed in different ways, all three are young and their opera show an interesting grasp of operatic form and further essays from them are to be encouraged. The hard working cast coped admirably with three different styles, and gave performances which brought out the very best in the music.

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