Saturday 16 September 2023

Mesmerising chamber drama: Dani Howard & Joseph Spence's The Yellow Wallpaper from The Opera Story

Dani Howard: The Yellow Wallpaper - The Opera Story (Photo: Ida Guldbæk Arentsen)
Dani Howard: The Yellow Wallpaper - The Opera Story (Photo: Ida Guldbæk Arentsen)

Dani Howard and Joseph Spence: The Yellow Wallpaper;  Clare Presland, Valerie Ebuwa, Berrak Dyer, Midori Jaeger, director: Amy Lane; The Opera Story at Lilian Baylis Studio

In a remarkable change of pace, The Opera Story returns with an intense, focused and mesmerising chamber drama with Dani Howard's music teasing out the layers in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 19th-century horror story

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, The Yellow Wallpaper (first published in 1892) is part of a tradition of horror fiction that dates back to Sheridan Lefanu, but it is also an icon of feminist literature as Perkins Gilman's reasons for writing it were to highlight the iniquities of the (male) insistence on rest cures for women to solve all sorts of problems.

In a move away from the company's focus on story-telling based on mashups of myths and fables, The Opera Story presented composer Dani Howard and librettist Joseph Spence's new opera The Yellow Wallpaper at the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler's Wells (seen 15 September 2023). It is a chamber piece with mezzo-soprano Clare Presland, dancer/choreographer Valerie Ebuwa, pianist Berrak Dyer and cellist Midori Jaeger, directed by Amy Lane, designed by Emma Ryott and lighting by Charlie Morgan Jones. The production was first presented earlier this year at Amy Lane's Copenhagen Opera Festival.

Composer Dani Howard previously composed Robin Hood for The Opera Story, a new opera that was musically promising but which seemed dramatically to be a missed opportunity [see my review]. Now, moving away from the restriction of pure story telling, Howard and Spence have created something remarkably abstract. Spence's text is highly pared down and early in planning was called 'Eight songs and four dances for the mad woman in the attic' and there is an element of staged song-cycle about the work. Spence's text gave Howard's music admirable space, and was completely non-prescriptive, at the end it was left up to us to consider who the woman behind the wallpaper was.

In the story, the protagonist obsesses about the idea that there is a woman behind the wallpaper, and strips it off in order to free her. In the opera, this woman was represented by Valerie Ebuwa and she had increasing agency until the end where the protagonist (Clare Presland) seemed to have far greater agency and you sensed that the two were sides to the same character, but we were left to make our own decisions.

There was no room, no wallpaper, just a row of lights delineating the room space with haze creating patterns. Behind this was the woman, Valerie Ebuwa, and the two musicians. But everyone was completely involved in the drama.

Howard's music, with its use of throbbing piano textures and lyrical cello and vocal lines, often reminded me of Jonathan Dove. She brought an excitement to the sound world which was surprising, but worked. Vocal lines were admirably singable, but more than that Clare Presland was enabled to get a remarkable amount of text across. But the work's structure encouraged variation, and Howard's use of percussive elements and harmonics (natural and not) on the cello really widened the sound world, and there was a striking use of silence too. 

Presland was completely riveting as the protagonist, giving a sense of her mental distress without resorting to classic mad-woman tropes. It is clear that the protagonist has had some sort of problem pregnancy, but it is never quite clear whether her memories of the child are imaginary or real. What the piece highlighted, as Perkins Gilman intended, was the simple idiocy of locking women up as mad when they were suffering from post-partum depression. Yet the opera does not preach. For 50 minutes we were gripped by Clare Presland's mesmerising performance, supported and partnered by Berrak Dyer and Midori Jaeger, both far more than mere accompaniment. As the woman behind the paper Valerie Ebuwa was discreet at first, descriptive almost, but then as the piece progressed and the protagonist became more intense, Ebuwa developed more agency.

Amy Lane's production was imaginative yet discreet. Non-narrative and in many ways non-linear, the drama was intense but Lane's ideas never called attention to themselves, she facilitated the terrific story telling and emotional drama the company projected

This opera was a remarkable, confident step for both Dani Howard and The Opera Story. Credit must be given also to librettist Joseph Spence for creating a text that was in many ways the ideal modern opera text. This felt very much like a personal project, the opera was the shape it was because the creators felt it should be like that, and this was a terrific evening in the theatre. Wisely, the company did not try to perform it with anything else, for a first outing, The Yellow Wallpaper was strong on its own.

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Elsewhere on this blog

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