Sunday 24 February 2019

Contemporary yet romantic: Noah Mosley's Aurora debuts at Bury Court Opera's swansong season

Noa Mosley: Aurora - Isolde Roxby, Magid El-Bushra - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Noah Mosley: Aurora - Isolde Roxby (Aurora), Magid El-Bushra (Prince) - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Noah Mosley Aurora; Isolde Roxby, Dominic Bowe, Andrew Tipple, Katherine Aitken, Jean-Max Lattemann, Magid El-Bushra, dir: Aylin Bozok, cond: Noah Mosley; Bury Court Opera Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Confident romanticism & lyricism in a new opera hampered by a poor libretto

Noah Mosley: Aurora - Katherine Aitken, Isolde Roxby - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Katherine Aitken, Isolde Roxby
Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
This year, alas, is the final season of Bury Court Opera, the opera festival which takes place in a delightful barn near Farnham which is used as a wedding venue for the rest of the year. And the festival is certainly going out with a bang. The first of the two operas they are presenting is a new commission from Noah Mosley, with Britten's Turn of the Screw next month.

We caught the second performance of Noah Mosley's Aurora on Saturday 23 February 2019 at Bury Court Opera, in a production directed by Aylin Bozok and designed by Holly Pigott. Noah Mosley conducted, with Isolde Roxby as Aurora, Dominic Bowe as the Exiled Prince, Katherine Aitken as the Wild Woman, Andrew Tipple as the King, Jean-Max Lattemann as the Mountain Witch and Magid El-Bushra as the Prince and the Owl.

In any new opera, the libretto is of prime importance and striking the right balance is difficult. The situation and the plot must appeal to the composer, and the text needs to leave enough space for the music. The libretto of Aurora, by Elisabetta Campeti, is based on an Italian folk tale. Like many such tales, the plot is varied and discursive, which has the advantage of giving plenty of strong and distinctive dramatic situations along with a strong moral. So in Aurora we have a haughty princess dying of a mysterious disease, a wild woman who heals her with a powerful spell, and the princess continuing to use the spell after she is healed, leading to the inevitable punishment from the mountain witch, the princess's gradual coming to self-knowledge, leading to her rescue. Campeti, has however, kept a lot of the twists and turns which, interesting in a story, threaten the drama with loss of focus.

An interesting exercise is to compare the way Henry Newbolt's libretto for Stanford's The Travelling Companion, recently revived by New Sussex Opera [see my review] stripped away a lot of the incidental detail from Hans Christian Anderson's story to create a focused drama. Campeti's libretto lacked this focus, and the essential point of the drama seemed to be in danger of being lost in the imaginative detail. I have to confess that I also found Campeti's style of writing too wordy, and wanted less here also; the characters' tendency to state who they were became rather wearisome, and some of the essential mechanics of the plot were a bit unclear.

Noah Mosley: Aurora - Isolde Roxby, Andrew Tipple - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Isolde Roxby, Andrew Tipple - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
The situations in the opera clearly appealed to Noah Mosley and he gave us some striking and powerful music, yet there was a discursiveness to his writing which I felt was detrimental to the drama. Mosley, like Campeti, had a tendency to linger on details lovingly when you felt the need to move on. Mosley's music is tonal and eclectic in style, in a richly romantic vein and he writes well for voices so there was little of that vocal noodling with orchestral accompaniment which besets modern operas. And Mosley drew some remarkably strongly emotional playing from the orchestra in the many orchestral interludes which were sprinkled through the opera. But there was a sense that there was a little too much fecundity here, and that a sense of purpose and drive in the drama needed emphasising. It is always difficult for a composer to remove music, particularly when the musical idea itself is strong, but sometimes this is dramatically necessary. I felt that Aurora needed a bit of judicious pruning to bring out the essential core of the drama.

But there was a lot to enjoy in the evening, and everyone contributed to a very strong performance. Central to this was the Aurora of Isolde Roxby, by far the biggest role in the opera and the one character who really develops and comes to self-knowledge. Roxby (who sang in Mosley's previous opera at Bury Court, Mad King Suibhne, see my review) rewarded the confidence placed in her with an account of the role which was generous in its lyricism, poignant in the pain of its self-discovery and completely mesmerising. Whatever doubts I had about the dramaturgy of the opera were always swept away during Roxby's scenes, so compelling was her performance.

Aurora's leading man, the exiled prince, was a woefully underwritten role and he plays no part in the story's central drama and I did wonder whether Campeti and Mosley should have been daring and ditched the character, leaving the princess proudly independent at the end. Dominic Bowe was finely engaging as the Exiled Prince, and made us care for him even though we didn't really know why.

Katherina Aitken was wonderfully engaging as the Wild Woman, and such was her performance that we really wanted to know more about her, and I wished that a way could have been found to bring the character back at the end. Andrew Tipple brought out the King's essential humanity, and we really believed in the way his care for his daughter developed. Counter-tenor Magid El-Bushra had great fun with the Prince, Aurora's rejected suitor in Act One, making him suitably narcissistic and horrible, and El-Bushra returned as a rather creepy owl in Act Two. A second counter-tenor, Jean-Max Lattemann, played the Mountain Witch, a character somewhat the opposite of Deus Ex Machina, as she brought pain and punishment on Aurora. Lattemann made the most of the theatricality of his scene, using the breaks in his voice so striking dramatic effect.

The smaller roles were well taken by members of the hard working chorus, with Elspeth Marrow as Astrologer and Courtier 1, and Jack Lawrence Jones as Doctor, Courtier 2 and the Ground Hog. The chorus had an important role, as both courtiers and spirit familiars for the witches, and they did not disappoint.

Mosley drew some remarkably passionate and lyrical playing from the small orchestra (18 players). Though there were moment when you felt a few more violins would have been beneficial, the young players' commitment and energy was never in doubt. Mosley used his forces well, and I particularly enjoyed the way he used the accordion as an interesting extra orchestral colour.

Aylin Bozok's production made the most of the relatively limited playing area, with Holly Piggott contributing some striking designs and some particularly wonderful costumes. Both rose brilliantly to the challenges presented by the opera's dramatic locations, yet Bozok also ensured that we cared for the characters.

Noa Mosley: Aurora - Andrew Tipple - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Noah Mosley: Aurora - Andrew Tipple - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Mosley has a remarkable lyric talent, and it is a pleasure to hear such a confidently romantic and melodic voice in contemporary opera, and Mosley' s music retains a complexity which ensures that it never lapses into banality.  He and Aylin Bozok drew strong performances from the cast with some very compelling moments. The piece was deservedly popular with the audience, but you feel that it needs the application of a little more creative dialogue between composer and librettist.

  • Noah Mosley's previous opera at Bury Court was Mad King Suibhne, you can read my review here.
  • Those people who read this blog regularly will remember that Noah Mosley and Isolde Roxby both performed in the premiere of my opera The Genesis of Frankenstein with the Helios Ensemble in 2015 [you can read about it on the blog,  and see the performance on Vimeo]
  • Magid El-Bushra will be singing the role of the Angry Young Man in the premiere of my opera The Gardeners at Conway Hall on 18 June 2019, see website for further details.
Elsewhere on this blog:
  • The idea of bringing to life something which has never been alive before: my interview with conductor Jessica Cottis - interview
  • Britten & Mendelssohn violin concertos from Sebastian Bohren & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (★★) - CD review
  • The full Egmont: Beethoven's incidental music linked by extracts of Goethe's play (★★★½) - CD review
  • Sweeter than Roses: music of Purcell & his contemporaries from Anna Dennis & Sounds Baroque  - (★★) CD review
  • Sung Poetry: Kitty Whately & Simon Lepper - From the Pens of Women (★★) - concert review
  • Choral music for Advent and Christmas from Portsmouth  - CD review
  • Love songs in Temple Church: Brahms and Schumann for Valentine's Day (★★★½) - concert review
  • An obsession with Norse myths: composer Gavin Higgins introduces his new opera The Monstrous Child  - interview
  • Delightful harmonies: Carl Czerny's arrangement of Beethoven's Septet (★★) - concert review
  • Verdi in Oman: La traviata at the Royal Opera House, Muscat (★★) - opera review
  • Youth shines: Savitri Grier in Elgar's Violin Concerto - concert review
  • Home

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