Monday 28 November 2022

A hugely ambitious company achievement: Will Todd's Migrations from Welsh National Opera

Will Todd: Migrations - Jamal Zulfiqar, Natasha Agarwal, Bollywood Ensemble - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)
Will Todd: Migrations - Jamal Zulfiqar, Natasha Agarwal, Bollywood Ensemble in This is the Life - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)

Will Todd: Migrations; director David Pountney, conductor Mattew Kofi Waldren; Welsh National Opera at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton
Reviewed 26 November 2022

Will Todd's new opera - six different stories ranging from 17th century to the present day, a huge ensemble combining professional and community, superbly engaged performances and a wonderfully ambitious musical score

Will Todd's opera Migrations is a hugely ambitious project commissioned by Welsh National Opera (WNO) to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the sailing of The Mayflower from Plymouth (one of the places that WNO visits) in 1620. The work finally made its debut in Cardiff in June 2022 and was revived for the company's Autumn 2022 tour where I caught the final performance at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton on Saturday 26 November 2022.

Migrations uses a libretto by six writers - Edson Burton, Miles Chambers, Eric Ngalle Charles, David Pountney, Shreya Sen-Handley, Sarah Woods - based on an original concept by David Pountney, to tell six interlocking story lines, thus setting the sailing of The Mayflower against other tales of migration and colonisation - the contemporary Cree people's struggle against the government of Canada, displaced people in an English class, the story of a house slave in 18th century Bristol, Indian doctors coming to work in the NHS in the 1960s and migratory birds.

The resulting work had around two hours of music, with Will Todd working with Jasdeep Singh Degun on the Indian-inspired music for the Bollywood scenes. The production involved a huge number of performers, the WNO Chorus and Orchestra, the Renewal Community Chorus of Bristol, as well as children's chorus, a guest artist ensemble of Parvathi Subbiah, Julia Daramy-Williams, Chike Akrwarandu, Oscar Castellino and Christin Joel, plus soloists Marion Newman, David Shipley, Kenneth Overton, Tom Randle, Grace Nyandoro, Michael Anthony McGee, Felix Kemp, Meeta Raval, Natash Agarwal and Jamal Zulfiqar. The original director was David Pountney with Sarah Crisp as director for this revival. Set designs were by Loren Elstein with costumes by April Dalton. Matthew Kofi Waldren conducted.

Will Todd: Migrations - WNO Chorus, Renewal Community Chorus - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)
Will Todd: Migrations - WNO Chorus, Renewal Community Chorus in The Mayflower - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)
The basic set was a large platform with the choruses seated at the rear. The action for the scenes involving the Cree people took place downstage right, and that for the 18th century house slave, downstage left, but as the opera progressed threads were intertwined, and each act finished with a large ensemble involving everyone.

The structure of the opera was complex, so this physical division of space was essential for clarity. Two storylines were played complete, at the centre of each act, with the other four divided into scenes spread across the work. For each story, Will Todd created a different sound world (so sitar and tabla the North Indian classical music inflected Bollywood scenes, harpsichord in the 18th century scenes) yet the whole had a strong sense of internal integrity.

None of the stories was particularly upbeat or positive, how could they be when any migration involves either desperation on behalf of the migrant or the displacement of indigenous peoples. The staging of the story of the Indian doctors in the 1960s NHS as a Bollywood musical brought a welcome element of theatrical dazzle. By having so many story lines and a complex narrative structure, the work made it difficult to fully identify with the various characters' struggles, they did not quite have time to establish themselves. That it worked was thanks to the sheer generosity of Todd's music and to the strong performances from the soloists.

Will Todd: Migrations -  Treaty No. 6 - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)
Will Todd: Migrations - Treaty No. 6 - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)

The Mayflower
, with a libretto by David Pountney, told the story of the Pilgrim Fathers as a communal choral tale, moving from expectation and hope to struggle and disease to the upbeat first Thanksgiving. And the chorus' upbeat cries of 'Freedom' brought a welcome sense of emotional lift throughout the opera.

Birds, with a libretto by Eric Ngalle Charles, featured a children's chorus as migratory birds (choreographer Melody Squire). Though these scenes featured strong performances from the children, I could easily have had fewer scenes but the moving final one, when the birds find their island destination is now underwater, was something of a clincher.

Treaty Six, with a libretto by Sarah Woods, told the story of the modern-day despoiling of Cree homelands by government forces in search of oil, set against the 19th century treaty between the Cree and the British colonial government. Told largely through the eyes of two women, Dawn (Marion Newman) and Nadine (Parvati Subbiah), it worked because of Newman and Subbiah's strong sense of identification, making a difficult and not particularly operatic topic highly personal.

Will Todd: Migrations - David Shipley, Sian Meinir, Simon Crosby Buttle, Fiona Harrison-Wolfe, Kenneth Overton - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)
Will Todd: Migrations - David Shipley, Sian Meinir, Simon Crosby Buttle, Fiona Harrison-Wolfe, Kenneth Overton in Flight, Death or Fog - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)

Fight, Death or Fog
, libretto by Edson Burton and Miles Chambers, took a real-life figure, Pero (Kenneth Overton), an 18th century house slave in Bristol, and intercut demeaning scenes with Pero's owner at a dinner party (featuring David Shipley, Sian Meinir, Simon Crosby-Buttle and Fiona Harrison-White) with scenes of Pero's family back in the Caribbean with Grace Nyandoro, Michael Anthony McGee and Tom Randle. Pero's fantasies of returning home were contrasted with the harsh realities of plantation life for enslaved peoples. Powerful performances from Kenneth Overton as Pero and Grace Nyandoro as his wife ensured that these scenes packed a punch, but I longed to spend longer with these characters, to explore them more.

The English Lesson, librettist Sarah Woods, took place in a contemporary class for English to Speakers of Other Languages. Lecturer Tom Randle's simple questions about home and jobs elicit disturbing memories from Felix Kemp's Adhan, Meeta Raval's Kadra and Grace Nyandoro's Emelda, refugees who no longer have a true home or a job. Both Kemp and Raval drew us in, and again you longed to explore these characters more.

For This is the Life, libretto by Shreya Sen-Handley, Neera (Natasha Agarwal) and Jai (Jamal Zulfiqar) look forward to a good life in the UK. Reality is different, as the Pin Striped Man (David Shipley) stokes racial prejudice. The Bollywood style setting was superbly done. Will Todd and Jasdeep Singh Degun collaborated on the music whilst Natasha Agarwal (soprano and trained dancer, who was All England Dancer of the Year in 2013) and Jamal Zulfiqar (who trained at The Urdang Academy and has worked extensively in musical theatre,) plus an ensemble of Nikita Johal, Christina Harris, Kyle Flaherty and Mohit Mathur sang and danced (choreography by Melody Squire) to the manner born. The orchestra here was supplemented by Arkash Parekh (sitar) and Gurdain Rayatt (tabla). There was a slight disjoint between tale and telling but this was a brilliantly theatrical moment.

Will Todd: Migrations - Flight, Death or Fog - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)
Will Todd: Migrations - Flight, Death or Fog - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)

For me, the strongest moments of the work were the scenes where the libretto went off-piste, allowing Todd to build the music into powerful ensembles. His music was never less than engaging or imaginative, but often the text did not always give him the lyric lines you felt his music wanted, and the musical interest reverted to the orchestra until the next moment that allowed Todd to make the voices soar.

The WNO Chorus worked hard, taking on multiple personae and often forming the backbone to the larger scale scenes, wonderfully supported by the Renewal Community Chorus. These latter singers were placed at the back of the platform, stationery but never still, their complete engagement with the music was palpable.

This was a hugely ambitious project, in terms of the artistic aims, size of the creative teams and those required to bring the work to fruition. I still feel that a different structure might have made the finished piece stronger dramatically, but Will Todd's achievement was immense, writing over two hours of large-scale music and welding it into a coherent whole. At this last performance, there were one or two substitutions from the ensemble, but you couldn't tell, and the sheer engagement and enjoyment of the diverse performers was palpable.

Will Todd: Migrations - Natasha Agarwal in This is the Life - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)
Will Todd: Migrations - Natasha Agarwal in This is the Life - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)

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