The Bargee’s Wife Closes the Three Choirs Festival Impressively

United KingdomUnited Kingdom John O’Hara The Bargee’s Wife: Community Opera: Soloists, Opera Chorus, Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, John O’Hara (conductor). Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester Cathedral, 4.8.2013 (RD) 

Libretto and Stage Direction: Karen Hayes

Now/The Bargee’s Wife: Barbara Dickson
Then: Claire Groom
Soon: Owen Webb
Harp: Katherine Thomas
Organ and piano: Tom Etherege

John O’Hara’s The Bargee’s Wife is a remarkable piece of community opera – one that really cries out to be fully staged. Yet the first-class, albeit virtually un-staged version that graced the final night of this summer’s Three Choir’s Festival was exciting nonetheless.

The demand for a visual exploration stems from the circumstances that inspired O’Hara and his librettist Karen Hayes to come up with a moving, grittily told tale. O’Hara has a strong pedigree for a work of this nature for he is celebrated as teacher, lecturer, film music composer, accordionist (with the band Jethro Tull) and inspired engenderer of scores for the Royal National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic.

The Bargee’s Wife herself appears in the form of the renowned singer Barbara Dickson, whose obsessive reminiscences fuse with those of the chorus and two well-sung narrators, evoking, T. S. Eliot-like, time past and time to come. Dickson’s grieving matron (‘mother, matriarch’) is time present looking back, unable to alter or prevent painful events of the past.

All centres on a death: a young girl (atmospherically and elusively evoked by an uncredited member of the beautifully lucid Gloucester Cathedral Junior Choir), who in the 1930s slipped into the icebound Gloucester-Sharpness canal and drowned.

This event has immense emotional impact and authenticity. Composer and librettist went out along the towpath in search of those, now in their 80s and in nearby care homes of various hues, who, being the girl’s contemporaries, remember the very day it happened. Hayes’ libretto is riddled with jagged images and fragments: ‘High up on shoulders I am secured by my father’s thumbs’; ‘Where the fleshy land undoes, Oozing under her hull, And bulk of ribs’ could be words by Dylan Thomas or George Mackay Brown.

These are Hayes’s own subliminally jarring lines, but much else (‘One of us drowned, A little girl was playing, Slipped off the bank, Slid down and drowned’) is not. Intensified by a prevalent dementia blotting the painful recall, many lines have the poignant immediacy of all reminiscence gathering.

O’Hara’s music – syncopated, rich, raw, inventive – is mostly sensational. He has a command of orchestration (here, key members of the Philharmonia) and a grip on musical shift and variance that commands immediate, and constant, attention. He takes you places you did not expect to go. In this piece he gives us Maxwell Davies’ ‘The Drowning Brothers’ (from Dark Angels: two boys drown in an Orkney burn), Britten’s Curlew River (dead child) and – given the incorporated children’s nursery rhymes – John Tavener’s Celtic Requiem all in one. The Bargee’s Wife is a masterpiece.

Soprano Claire Groom (Then) sounded clear as a bell while Now was sung by a baritone, Owen Webb, with a beautifully clear high register as well as depths. However, Barbara Dickson’s lady bargee was more problematic. Maybe capitalising on her musical past – especially her Folk background early on in her career – O’Hara has supplied Dickson with music that repeats like a medieval round. His writing also builds a musical mantra suggesting the obsessive flailing of octogenarian contemporaries struggling to piece together with precision grisly events from their past. The libretto features much obsessive naming of names: she is a master at it.

Miss Dickson made a rather uncertain start; some of her words were poorly enunciated – oddly, she was a clumsy manipulator of her microphone. However, other parts of the text emerged powerfully: ‘We’ll dance to anything down ol’man river And we’ll both have a fag.’ ‘Her pole, a tightrope-walker’s cane, Mud on her shoes and printed dress’ (note the detail, ‘printed’; this was typical of the quality of the piece). Dickson was the weak link, but, paradoxically, because of her stage and (now) vocal shyness, she also managed to be one of the show’s strengths. She epitomised frailty.

The ‘Opera’ chorus, drawn from the local community, reinforced by some singers from the Festival Chorus, was first-rate: you couldn’t differentiate, and the sopranos had an uncanny gift of sounding like children themselves. O’Hara’s conducting was exemplary, because he knows what he wants. Katherine Thomas’s harp playing, a focus of the score, was evocative and Gloucester organ scholar and former King’s College, Cambridge chorister Tom Etheridge’s keyboard inserts were crucial. Players from the Philharmonia – horn, oboe and the wonderful co-leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay – supplied vital elements too.

Unfortunately, Hayes’s direction of the children was appalling: ill-informed and frankly sloppy; which only reinforces the point that this piece cries out for a proper staging. An organisation such as Garsington Opera – if they want a piece ready-made off the peg rather than a new commission – should take this up, and give it a full staging. It would be a world première. And it would knock you for six.

Roderic Dunnett