Thursday 12 November 2020

The Soldier's Return: Opera Sunderland's powerful film premiere of Marcos Fernandez-Barrero's new opera

Marcos Fernandez-Barrero: The Soldier's Return - Ian Priestley, Austin Gunn - Opera Sunderland (Photo Mark Savage)
Marcos Fernandez-Barrero: The Soldier's Return - Ian Priestley, Austin Gunn - Opera Sunderland
(Photo Mark Savage)

Marcos Fernandez-Barrero The Soldier's Return; Ian Priestley, Katherine Aitken, Austin Gunn, Andri Björn Róbertsson, Marco Romano, Annie Rigby; Opera Sunderland on film

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 November 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new community opera becomes a powerful short film about the real-life experience of veterans when they return home from war

Opera Sunderland was due to premiere Marcos Fernandez-Barrero's opera The Soldier's Return this year with a 40-strong community chorus, lockdown meant a change of plan. Instead, it was created as a film, the chorus and the musicians recorded in isolation and the soloists in a socially distanced production in the studio, and the result released on Remembrance Sunday. Directed by Annie Rigby (artistic director of Newcastle-based Unfolding Theatre), The Soldier's Return features music by Marcos Fernandez-Barrero, text by Jacob Polley, with Ian Priestley as the man, Katherine Aitken as the woman, Austin Gunn as voice 1 and Andri Björn Róbertsson as voice 2, with the orchestra and 23-strong community chorus of Opera Sunderland conducted by Marco Romano, filmed by Meerkat Films.

Opera Sunderland was founded in 2006 as Music in the Minster to give a fully staged performance of Britten's Noyes Fludded. In 2015, it presented its first commission MIRACLE! with words by David Almond (a writer from the North-East) and music by Marcos Fernandez-Barrero. MIRACLE! was Marcos-Barrero's first opera. He is a Spanish composer who trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the Royal College of Music and was based in the UK before returning to Spain where he teaches at the conservatoire in Barcelona.

The Soldier's Return is based on a libretto by poet and novelist Jacob Polley, who was born in Cumbria but currently lives in the North-East and teaches at Newcastle University. The text is based on interviews with local people involved in past, recent and ongoing combat situations.

The plot is simple, the woman (Katherine Aitken) waits as her husband, the man (Ian Priestley), returns to her from an army posting in a combat situation. He returns, and in a series of episodes the opera explores the way that the man is still, in some way, present with his comrades, here but not here, there but not there. His flashbacks get increasingly intense till he is re-living war episodes in their living room, but one episode culminates in a remembrance of singing the hymn Abide with me, and this leads to a sort of quiet acceptance, with the final words 'Your home'/'I'm home'.

Polley's elegant libretto uses a variety of war situations, this is not about one particular veteran and one particular war, the man is very much an Everyman figure. Yet Polley picks up themes across the various war episodes, such as the subject of little radios and staying in contact with home via the radio (the iconic radio programme Family Favourites occurs at one point), and there are other themes as well. The way the interviews have been filleted and crafted into an opera libretto is impressive and the results work well.

The different war episodes are evoked by period film-footage projected on the rear of the set and this blends into footage of the man's various comrades, played by Austin Gunn and Andri Björn Róbertsson, who despite being apparently disembodied figments of the man's imagination, play a big role in the opera. And as the intensity increases, so does the reality of his interaction with his colleagues, till Gunn and Róbertsson move from being on film to being present in the studio with Priestley. The chorus is offstage throughout.

We are introduced to Marcos-Fernandez' music via the long introduction, the film titles, where we see the woman pacing around and get glimpses of railway journeys. This is train music, highly effective and very atmospheric. Marcos-Fernandez uses his small orchestra (double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion) to striking effect, creating a series of distinctive timbres and imbuing the train music with a disturbing quality.

Marcos-Fernandez sets up repeating figurations in the orchestra, and uses these to set the mood and over them, he lays his dialogue, set in a quasi-arioso recitative. We never quite get an aria, yet the work never settles into ordinary dialogue either, which given the subject-matter and its treatment works well. Perhaps this is not a style I would want for a long opera, but a reviewer should not assume that a composer has no other tools in their toolkit!

The film comes with sub-titles, but the cast's diction is good and, perhaps more importantly, the composer's setting of the English text felt natural and instinctive. Setting a foreign language is always a challenge, no matter how idiomatic your writing, so Marcos-Fernandez is to be commended.

As the intensity of the plot gathers, so does the music with Marcos-Fernandez using the orchestra to give the textures complexity and intensity. Towards the end, things seem to run headlong into the re-creation of Abide with me, and the short but meaningful resolution.

Ian Priestley gives a towering performance as the man, and the bulk of the opera is really built on his shoulders as he re-lives a series of intense experiences. Yet this is a highly sympathetic performance, we understand. With less material to work with, requiring less range of emotion, Katherine Aitken manages to be a strong presence as the woman, also troubled yet also sympathetic. Austin Gunn and Andri Björn Róbertsson manage successfully to give character to the disembodied voices without creating an overly strong presence so that for most of the opera they remain just out of reach.

I have no idea what changes were made to the project when it moved from theatre to film. Annie Rigby's production (with production design by Imogen Cloët) feels as if it comes from the theatre. I would be interested know whether the score was adjusted, but certainly this is a work I was love to experience in the theatre. As a film, the work has a strong presence thanks to terrific work from all concerned at Opera Sunderland.

Update: My apologies for managing to get the name of the conductor wrong in earlier versions of this review

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