Seven Angels with Birmingham Contemporary Music and Opera Group

22/06/2011

Bedford (Music) and Maxwell (Words) – Seven Angels: World Premier of joint Opera Production from the Opera Group and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group with Nicholas Collon (Conductor) John Fulljames (Director) Tadasu Takamine (Designer) Jon Clark (Lighting). CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 17 6.2011 (GR)

Singers:

Angel 1/Waitress – Rhona McKail
Angel 2/Queen –  Emma Selway
Angel 3/Chef/Priestess  – Louise Mott
Angel 4/Prince  – Christopher Lemmings
Angel 5/Porter/ – Industrialist Joseph Shovelton
Angel 6/Gardener/General  – Owen Gilhooly
Angel 7/King –  Keel Watson

When BCMG Artistic Director Stephen Newbould got together with his opposite number at the Opera Group John Fulljames to discuss likely composers for a joint opera commission, Luke Bedford was top of both wish lists. Five years later it all came to fruition with the world premier of Seven Angels on June 17th at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham. The result was a total justification for their confidence in Bedford. Here is a young British composer who has described his style as ‘a musical language based upon tonal chords, but with strange notes here and there’. This is how his latest composition came across to me: not unduly radical, but certainly of his time and often quite profound in reference to the text.

If Bedford was an undisputed choice as composer, then Glyn Maxwell as librettist was inspired. The pair share a fascination for Milton’s Paradise Lost; it was their starting point. But whereas Milton looked backwards, versifying such scriptural events as ‘Man’s fall from Eden’ and ‘Redemption through Christ’, Maxwell and Bedford’s aim was to look forward. Growing from fragments of the poem, the intention of Seven Angels was to create an opera for today, one that engaged on a multitude of levels. At the pre-performance introduction they outlined their intentions to create a world whose cause was unclear and the outcome unknown, applying an art form that would be at odds with aesthetics. I believe they succeeded utterly. Combining the decline of Man with such current vital issues as climate change, depletion of natural resources and Armageddon, and communicating the result was far from easy, but Maxwell managed brilliantly.

How did the creative team decide to symbolise the material wealth at the heart of the drama? Their simple and practical solution was the ‘book’. With no curtain at the CBSO centre, this became immediately clear upon entering the auditorium. Hundreds of hard-back books had been carefully arranged, standing on end in curved and straight rows on the performance platform that constituted the stage. No wonder the audience were asked to come in on tiptoe! The music started with a bang with all twelve instrumentalists involved, an explosion of sound, musical and otherwise, triggering a domino effect upon the books – the seventh seal had opened. The mystical number seven formed a significant part of the concept, the angels themselves and the make-up of seven scenes, although each of the two acts were through-composed.

, Photo credit: Alastair Muir


The Story of the Angels
comprised the first scene. Seven abandoned and confused angels have their fall from heaven interrupted, landing at an impoverished place. They stumbled into their first ensemble over debris of books. Marked senza misura (free time) by Bedford to resemble natural speech, all seven singers produced the fluidity and elasticity demanded by the score in So far……So far……To Fall. The stilted text required precise voice changeovers, timings mastered only by dedicated rehearsal. The use of repetitive phrase produced a very clear beginning. From the murmurs of the wind, the angels perceived that this desert had once been a source of healthy living. Changes in the elements brought about by subtle lighting changes confirmed that life had previously blossomed here. This coincided with some lovely poetic lines from Maxwell:

If a cry then a creator…
If a sigh, why then a past
Was beautiful and not deserted…
Not a desert but a garden.

Regressing, the seven are transformed into characters within this land of milk and honey. The garden duly appeared: lifting the hinged top half of the hitherto flat construction centre stage fashioned a prize specimen (see photo). Two of the angels became the owners of the garden – the King and Queen. The remaining angels continued to develop the story of how the royals ‘made a third’ and called him ‘Sun’, confirmed by a lighting change of the flower from white to yellow. The King and Queen became besotted with their offspring, spoiling him rotten – with books. The Prince devoured page after page, stuffing them down his shirt and becoming a candidate for Weightwatchers.

Christopher Lemmings as the Prince

This led directly into The Story of the Household. While the palace-staff of Gardener, Porter, Chef and Waitress were engaged in a food production line to feed their son, his parents likened their garden to a heaven. The pace of the music picked up to match the hectic work rate of the household, moving books from one to another to satisfy the More, More, More of the ever-expanding Prince. Nicholas Collon efficiently led the BCMG players. Although perfectly audible, the limited confines of CBSO Centre meant they were situated at the rear, in relative darkness and unfortunately often obscured behind the action on the main set. Bedford had wanted to select a combination of instruments that was somewhat different and consequently produced a unique sound. His group of twelve comprised three alternating woodwind, trumpet/flugelhorn, trombone, piano, percussion, four viola (one doubling violin) and double bass. Another mission accomplished as far as I was concerned.

As the wealth and power of the throne grew so the King and Queen’s love for their garden increased. In The Story of the Garden their heaven materialised. Starting with violet, the flower was successively taken through the colours of the rainbow, each shade having its individual symbol – glory, mystery, endlessness, new life, riches and power. But elsewhere, other worlds were collapsing, philanthropy was eschewed by their majesties, the garden would be their nest egg. Fearing they would have to share their opulence, the walls were raised, the gates closed and locked.

But the King and Queen went too far. The isolationism economy of their kingdom struggled to maintain their supply of fresh food during The Story of the Prince. This dramatic little scene signalled the beginning of the end as far as this little community was concerned. One by one the Gardener, the Porter and the Chef could not fulfil their role, removed their uniforms and threw them at the Waitress. In turn she put them on and assumed all the chores to maintain the Prince’s supply chain. The faster the books arrived, the faster its pages were consumed – food for the belly rather than the mind. As the Prince, Christopher Lemmings showed what an excellent character acter he was, the tantrum levels of this spoiled brat were just about right, highly agitated without being over the top – and a touch of the Victor Meldrew (see photo). He displayed little pleasure during ingestion, as if afflicted with a twentieth century complaint, compulsive food disorder. Becoming aware of his situation there was pathos too as the ‘supermarket’ ran dry. Inevitably the waitress broke down in tears. With his plate empty, the prince sees his own reflection in his silver platter. It was not a pleasant sight.

 

L-R Christopher Lemmings as the Prince, Owen Gilhooly as the General, Keel Watson as the King, Emma Selway as the Queen, Joseph Shovelton as the Industrialist

Too fat to be mobile, the prince continued to move the reflecting plate to examine his world in The Story of the Waitress. He caught a glimpse of the Waitress, now reduced to her own uniform only. ‘Have you always looked like that?’ he says; it was love at first sight. Rhona McKail as the Waitress was another excellent casting. A product of British Youth Opera, the basics were there: enthusiasm, confidence, dynamic range and colour variation. Hers was the starring role and she filled it admirably. There was poignancy in her duet with Lemmings as together they decided that in order to eat they must enter the King’s forbidden garden. She was able to cast doubts regarding his self-centred attitude: ‘I’ became ‘you’ and then ‘we’; ‘they’ was left for later. Her Never mind, it’s a start convincingly spelt out the need for something to be done, somewhere. On their path to the garden they met in turn an Industrialist from an overblown manufacturing economy, a General from a country ravaged by war and a Priestess from a region living in fear of dogma and extremist zealots. Each regime had fallen upon desperate times. At this point the libretto mentioned accompanying screen images of post-industrial desolation, refugees and book-burning respectively. None appeared and this was an opportunity missed. Likewise previous screen images had been somewhat innocuous. When the gates were eventually opened, the garden with its high walls restricting the sunlight had withered and died.

A world crisis had now developed and Act II began with The Story of the Conference. The Waitress predicted ‘Nothing is coming’; the Prince finally realised that ‘To do nothing is not enough’. The King hosted the summit with delegates gathered around a solid-looking conference table constructed from books. As the King, this was Keel Watson’s best scene. He made it plain that the ‘Agenda’ was more important than any item on it. A further dig by Bedford at the likes of the G8 meetings came during the meal breaks: the breakfast menu included such delicacies as ‘Bellini pecan Hollandaise’. The container for the food was a huge hollowed out book, cleverly continuing the concept. As the Industrialist, Joseph Shovelton ably listed the ‘great stink’ that had enveloped his country; I liked the way Maxwell’s fractured lines combined with the pacey accompaniment of Bedford – particularly the forceful chords of Malcolm Wilson on piano and the bass drum beat of the busy Simon Limbrick. Owen Gilhooly as the General, pleaded his cause for aid in similar style, but only after further exoticisms for lunch. This turned out to the last meal on earth and all the Waitress could bring to the table for supper was a book of hot air. (See photo) The Queen, sung by Emma Selway was not amused and berated the Waitress. The Prince protected her. Only then could Louise Mott as the Priestess have the floor. Although the Prince could have eaten with the delegates, for once he rejected his portions, losing his belly. The Queen still believed in the ‘infinity of plenty’. But the cupboard is bare and the conference took it out on the desk and books went everywhere.

In The Story of the Stars all hope had crumpled, the characters returned to the heavens. The Prince-Angel and the Waitress-Angel tried to recall the events of that other world. It dawned on them. From within the rubble the pair opened several of the books, allowing light to spring forth, a symbol of hope for an unknown future. Maxwell closed as he began Milton style:

Hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

As Professor Ken Hiltner wrote in the programme: What next? Do we give up on our planet as lost, or do we, as Milton suggests, work to undo our folly by taking upon ourselves the task of regenerating Paradise? Maxwell and Bedford surely produced an opera for today with thought provoking themes.

Geoff Read

All Pictures © Alastair Muir

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