Tuesday 27 February 2024

Intense and disturbing, a story without any redemption: Stephen McNeff's new opera A Star Next to the Moon based on Juan Rulfo's novel Pedro Páramo

Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon - Jacob Harrison (Pedro Paramo) - Guidhall School of Music and Drama (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)
Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon - Jacob Harrison (Pedro Páramo) - Guildhall School of Music & Drama (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)

Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon; director: Martin Lloyd-Evans, conductor: Dominic Wheeler; Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Reviewed 26 February 2024

Stephen McNeff's powerful new opera tells a disturbing story with a performance that pulls no punches and outstanding contributions from the young cast

Stephen McNeff's opera, A Star Next to the Moon debuted at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama's Silk Street Theatre on Monday 26 February 2024. With a libretto by Aoife Mannix based Juan Rulfo's novel Pedro Páramo, the opera has had a long journey to fruition as Stephen McNeff discussed in my recent interview with him, but creating a large-scale new opera in two acts with a cast of eleven, chorus and orchestra is no small achievement indeed. Martin Lloyd-Evans directed and Dominic Wheeler conducted with designs by Anna Reid. Jacob Harrison was Pedro Páramo, Holly Brown was Susana, Steven van der Linden was Juan Preciado, plus Emyr Lloyd Jones, Rachel Roper, Joe Chalmers, Shana Moron-Caravel, Vladyslava Ionascu-Yokovenko, Jonah Halton, Yolisa Ngwexana and Ana-Carmen Balestra.

Following a death-bed promise to his mother, Juan Preciado (Steven van der Linden) travels to Comala to seek out his father, Pedro Páramo. In Comala, Juan finds people that knew his mother but he comes to realise that the town is populated by ghosts and he becomes more fevered and confused. The story is divided into two halves, for Act One we see Juan's search in Comala intercut with scenes from the early days of Pedro Páramo (Jacob Harrison). As we watch Juan becoming increasingly distraught, we witness Pedro manipulating those around him including Dolores (Shana Moron-Caravel), Juan's mother.

Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon - Steven van der Linden (Juan Preciado) - Guidhall School of Music and Drama (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)
Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon - Steven van der Linden (Juan Preciado) - Guildhall School of Music & Drama (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)

It becomes apparent that Comala is entirely inhabited by ghosts and that Pedro Páramo corrupted all around him, so that all those Juan encounters have something to atone for. At the end of Act One Juan undergoes a transformation and seems to join the ghosts. In Act Two, he and Dorotea (Rachel Roper) witness further scenes from Pedro's life as Pedro struggles with his childhood sweetheart, Susana (Holly Brown) from whom he has been parted for 30 years but who returns mad. The ending of the opera is bleak, as Pedro lays waste to the town and realises that he is unredeemed and unredeemable.

Whilst the work does use a chorus, for much of the time McNeff used the soloists as a vocal ensemble, so that as Juan made his vow to his mother, a group of characters from Comala sang a chorus describing the town and throughout the first part, there was this constant sense of the Comala ghosts watching and commenting, with individual characters coming out from the group then receding again. 

Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon - Holly Brown (Susana) - Guidhall School of Music and Drama (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon - Holly Brown (Susana)
Guildhall School of Music &  Drama (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
Aoife Mannix's libretto was complex and required careful attention. The story was told in nebulous fashion, in small nuggets parcelled out at different times. You had to pay attention, and there were moments when important pieces of information were in danger of flashing by. Also, you had to keep track of who was whom.

Whilst the story split neatly into two sections, this meant that there was no single protagonist. Steven van der Linden's Juan was key to Act One, but in Act Two he took a back seat, simply commenting, whilst we watched the story of Pedro Páramo (Jacob Harrison), and it was only in Act Two that the important figure of Susana (Holly Brown) was established.

McNeff's sound world was essentially expressive arioso with strongly characterful orchestration; the orchestra featured double woodwind and brass plus saxophone, guitar and keyboard.  His music responded to the emotional depth of the story and there was little sense of the nebulousness we associate with musical ghosts. Here, all the characters were portrayed with strength and vividness. 

In Act One, this sense of emotional stress tended to make the music a little to consistently insistent, with voices a little too often on edge and the intensity was in danger of becoming wearing (the act lasted around 70 minutes). The ensemble chorus sections were a welcome relief and added interesting textures to the sound world, but overall the act felt a little too full on. Act Two changed as we were concentrating on a single story telling strand, as we came to understand more how Pedro Páramo came to be.

Martin Lloyd-Evans' production revelled in the fact that the work was based on the idea that time was porous, that Juan and the dead from Comala could exist in the same frame of reference, the present bleeding into a past so terrible that its resonances echoed on. Anna Reid's wonderful set helped. The centrepiece was a single structure that evoked the townscape of Comala with its preponderance of churches, yet this turned to provided a more intimate room, and enabled scene changes to be fluid.

The performances were uniformly terrific, and there was little sense of uncertainty in the face of a complex new opera. Steven van der Linden gave a strong performance as Juan, a tricky character who never gets the resolution he is seeking and whose world disintegrates as he learns the truth about his father. Jacob Harrison made a mesmerising Pedro Páramo with Harrison effortlessly holding the stage every time he was present. Harrison created a highly dominating personality, broodingly sexy and fatally seductive, though ultimately I would have liked a bit more edge and savagery. That said, the ending, with Harrison alone amongst the dead villagers was powerful indeed.

Holly Brown had a tricky job as Susana, we only ever saw her mad but the scenes between her and Harrison's Pedro were the only moments of real tenderness in the entire opera. The other singers were all strong and vivid. Emyr Lloyd Jones made a strong Fulgor, Pedro's right hand man, whilst Rachel Roper was wonderfully sympathetic as Dorotea, a woman whose baby (one of Pedro's many illegitimate children) died in childbirth and who becomes some sort of spirit guide for Juan. Shana Moron-Caravel played Juan's mother, both as the elderly woman on her deathbed and as a younger ghost. Ana-Carmen Balestra popped up as a young woman who had a sexual relationship with her own brother!  Joe Chalmers was a personal Abundio, another of Pedro's sons, whilst Vladyslava Ionascu-Yakovenko had a wonderful time playing the elderly Eduviges, with Jonah Halton as the local priest, willing to compromise his religious principles, and Yolisa Ngwexana as the young woman who looked after Juan. 

Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon - Jonah Halton (Father Renteria) - Guildhall School of Music and Drama (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon - Jonah Halton (Father Renteria) - Guildhall School of Music & Drama (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)

The orchestral contribution made a vivid counterpoint to the singing and the orchestra played an important role in the evening. Always vibrant, I did wonder whether their playing of McNeff's fascinatingly rich orchestration was sometimes a little too full-on and that the voices might have benefitted from lighter support.

Any new opera is a process of development, and the premiere is not an end point but a beginning. There are three more performances, with some cast changes, and the piece will bed in. It is a fascinating story, intriguingly told and I think the work will benefit from greater familiarity. It is also a remarkably rich piece and will respond to other treatments.

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