Monday 2 October 2017

That Man Stephen Ward by Thomas Hyde

Thomas Hyde - That Man Stephen Ward - Resonus Classics
Thomas Hyde That Man Stephen Ward; Damian Thantrey, Nova Music Opera Ensemble, George Vass; Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 27 2017 Star rating: 4.0
A brilliant performance in the title role illuminates this fascinating new opera about the Profumo affair

Thomas Hyde's opera That Man Stephen Ward was premiered in 2008, and revived by Nova Music Opera at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 2015. Here we have the work's premiere recording on Resonus Classics with George Vass conducting the Nova Music Opera Ensemble with baritone Damian Thantrey. The work is an hour-long piece in six scenes, and in what is a dramatic tour de force, Damian Thantrey sings the sole vocal part, combining the role of Stephen Ward with other subsidiary characters.

The piece deals with the background to the Profumo affair when society osteopath Stephen  Ward was accused of living off immoral earnings and effectively he became a fall guy for his society 'friends'. David Norris' libretto takes us from the period when Ward was charged through to his final suicide. Norris' uses a patchwork/collage technique and the work moves both time and view point, but central to the concept is a series of strong monologues for Ward, including the powerful final scene.

Damian Thantrey in Thomas Hyde's That Man Stephen Ward with Nova Music Opera at the Presteigne Festival, 2015 (Photo Hannah Lane)
Damian Thantrey in Thomas Hyde's That Man Stephen Ward
with Nova Music Opera at the Presteigne Festival, 2015 (Photo Hannah Lane)
As we move between Ward's present and his memories of the past, Thomas Hyde's score includes numerous references to popular music, both pastiche and using elements woven into his own style. There are substantial musical interludes, how could there not be in a solo work lasting 60 minutes, and the ensembles also seems to amplify and comment on the action.

Hyde's style is complex but tonal, and he writes in a sort of free arioso so that the work moves fluidly between dialogue and set pieces, dissolving at a moment's notice. Hyde writes for a Pierrot Ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, keyboard) to which he adds percussion, and his instrumental writing is colourful, imaginative and brilliant, and he uses his ensemble very effectively and creates a variety of timbres and textures.

He is similarly imaginative in the vocal writing, and Damian Thantrey embraces with a will the requirements both to sing falsetto (for snippets of female characters) and work in a variety of more advanced vocal techniques.

The work does presuppose some knowledge of the Profumo affair, and some scenes have important stage directions which makes the piece confusing unless you read the libretto. So the opening has a silent character, Bill (Lord Astor) and then dissolves into Ward's memories of happier times together. I suspect that this works well in the theatre, but we can only get a dim impression on disc. What holds the work together is the mesmerising performance from Damian Thantrey, his cut glass accent never slips and he inhabits the character of Stephen Ward in such a way as to make us really feel for him. The ending is profoundly moving.

This is a striking and important work, though you cannot help but wish for a DVD. George Vass gets a fine performance from the Nova Music Ensemble, but buy it for the towering performance from Damian Thantrey.

Thomas Hyde (born 1978) - That Man Stephen Ward (2006-7) [62.57]
Damian Thantrey (baritone)
Nova Music Opera Ensemble (Kathryn Thomas, flute, Catriona Scott, clarinet, Madeleine Easton, violin, Amy Jolly, cello, Timothy End, piano & keyboard, Jonny Gorgan, percussion)
George Vass (conductor)
Recorded at the church of St John the Evangelist, Oxford (SJE Arts), 27-28 June 2016.
Available from Amazon.

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