A Classy and Successful Revival of George Lloyd’s First Opera.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom George Lloyd, Iernin (a Celtic Opera in Three Acts to a libretto by William A.C. Lloyd):  Surrey Opera / Jonathan Butcher (conductor), Alexander Hargreaves (director), Trinity School Concert Hall/Theatre, Croydon,  24.10.2013 (RB)

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Iernin: Catharine Rogers (soprano)
Gerent: Edward Hughes (tenor)
Cunaide: Felicity Buckland (mezzo)
Edyrn: Håkan Vramsmo (baritone)
Bedwyr: James Harrison (sung by Jon Openshaw, baritone)
A Huntsman: James Schouten (baritone)
A Saxon Thane: Robert Trainer (baritone)

The Cornish-born composer George Lloyd wrote three operas all before the age of 38. Their completion and premieres marked and coincided with crucial events in his life. Iernin (1933-4) written when he was in his very early twenties and The Serf (1936-8), completed when he was 25, appeared as fascism reached its apex and erupted into the Second World War. John Socman was written for the Festival of Britain (1951) with the war six years over but with its life-scarring events for the composer still vivid. The experience of the premiere of John Socman was for many years to drive Lloyd away from engagement with the musical establishment and vice versa. Between the first two operas and the last came his march HMS Trinidad – heard at this year’s Proms in its orchestral version – and the great symphonies 4 (1946) and 5 (1948).

The subject matter of all three of his operas focuses on British/Celtic legends and medieval history. In that sense Lloyd can be rather haphazardly grouped with the likes of Alan Bush and Rutland Boughton. The latter is closer in style than Bush though both Bush and Boughton wove their Socialist convictions into the music. Iernin’s continuous flow of music rather than a series of stop-start arias and choruses places the Lloyd work closer to Boughton than to Bush. During the course of a really enjoyable evening I thought especially of Boughton’s Queen of Cornwall which has a setting related to that of Iernin and also gave a voice to the scenery: here the Nine Maidens – there aren’t nine singers, though. One also senses parallels with Boughton’s great hit of the 1920s, The Immortal Hour, especially in Act I where Iernin, sung and acted magnificently by Catharine Rogers, revels in the beauties of nature while also caught up with the glories of her faery brethren now long-gone.

However the character parallels with a non-British opera were even stronger at least in terms of mix of influences. That opera is Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount which again opposes pagan voices with those of Christianity and juxtaposes a tragic love-story. In the Hanson the folk influence is found in the ‘wicked’ Maypole dances for the villagers. Lloyd’s discretely woven choral singing – often unison –  is much to the fore in the Keverne hunting chorus complete with a glowingly masculine role for principal horn Ian Stott. The choir is also to be heard in The Giant of Carne Galva and The Lonely Raven’s Cry.

The story of Iernin has its twists and turns, but simply put, we have Iernin waking after hundreds of years from a Christian curse that changed her and her sisters into stone. The action is set in Saxon times though the costumes in this production – apart from that of Iernin herself are approximately Victorian. This is presumably to emphasise the remove in time between Iernin’s ever-young golden era and the more materialistic Cornish world into which she awakens. There, soon after her awakening, from stone is Gerent – a nobleman from Castle Bosigram – who seems mystically to have known her all his life. The two fall instantly in love though Gerent is in fact betrothed to Cunaide, the daughter of Prince Bedwyr. Gerent is dragged away and back to his marriage to Cunaide by the fierce and stalwart Edyrn. Bedwyr is caught between loyalty to his Saxon King and his history and dreams of Cornish autonomy. A wedding procession with Gerent and Iernin is interrupted by the other-worldly Iernin who strikes aside the Cross. The two lovers then flee to the hills after Gerent openly defies the priest, the crowd and the Court. In the third and last Act, after a great storm – presumably equivalent to the storm that racks the lovemaking in Walton’s Troilus and Cressida – the two lovers engage in a troubled and passionate duet. They are then joined by Cunaide who implores Gerent to return to her and to reality. Iernin forsakes Gerent and turns dancingly back to stone in her place amid the Nine Maidens. Gerent departs for the realities – one senses that his marriage to Cunaide will be a compromised and troubled one.

It is at this point, with only ten minutes of the score to go, that director Alexander Hargreaves gives the audience a jolt. Cunaide is alone on the stage when a line of British Great War soldiers marches slowly up and into view rifles at the slope. The next image is of the wounded Gerent in officer’s uniform and with the few surviving soldiers in tin hats and the grieving villagers gathering around the stone into which, earlier on, Iernin had turned. The stone is represented, as were the Sisters at the start, by white-draped uprights. The white cloth is pulled aside to reveal not Iernin but a cenotaph stone listing the dead.

The staging for this production is very imaginative yet sparing. The Act I ‘Nine Sisters’ lose the white drapes to become furniture and a bust for Act II and Bedwyr’s court. The Act I cliff backdrop is irregularly crenellated to suggest the rugged tors and for Act II the drapes are removed to produce a suggestion of the castle ramparts. Blue light is used imaginatively throughout together with thunder sound-effects.

The cast acted and sang their hearts out. Iernin was never less than convincing and maintained her voice and enunciation despite being called on to dance in her various transformation scenes from and to stone, celebrating her liberation to flesh and blood, ferocious and fearful in the scene with the villagers and the priest. She is suitably Isolde-like especially in the lengthy Puccinian duet that dominates Act III. Catharine Rogers’ Iernin reminded me of Gwyneth Jones. She certainly has a sturdy Wagnerian way with her, yet she also conjured up a fey and wild-eyed spirit that ultimately made Iernin’s future with Gerent a write-off. The easily swayed and impulsive Gerent was heroically sung by Edward Hughes who evinced both a hopeless yet possessed passion with Iernin. He also mustered a defiance in the face of the Court after having been bullied into compliance by the dominant Noble Edyrn in the shape of Håkan Vramsmo. Ruthless Edyrn shocked the audience at the end of Act II scene 1 by slitting the throat of the haplessly fearful Saxon Thane – nicely sung by Robert Trainer – who has the audacity to try to force Cunaide into marriage to an English earl rather than Gerent. The very extended Act III duet between Iernin and Gerent is most impressive.

The part of Bedwyr was taken by James Harrison who though indisposed acted and mimed the role on stage in a commanding manner. The singing of Bedwyr was taken by Jon Openshaw who stood and sang from a raised and lit dais to the left of the staging. This worked better than you might guess – a tribute to both artists. Openshaw as the somewhat caricatured censorious priest  played his role with burning distinction. The faithful Cunaide is a thanklessly grey character beside the volatile Iernin. She never gives up on her wayward Gerent. And the role was vividly sung and acted by Felicity Buckland. The excellent chorus with its front row stuffed with individual characters, bickering, joking, ranting and teasing brilliantly encompassed the extremes: their weakness, their mob fury, their tendency to revert to pagan dancing and then to turn back again under the exhortation of their priest when Iernin throws aside the cross in Act II.

The score presents a continuous orchestral flow from the violent in media res prelude onwards. There are no moments when they are marking time. Orchestral details are numerous but for the most part commandingly distracting; the stage action and singing are central. The style is Lloyd’s own but it is related to Sibelius and Bax. There were several occasions where I noticed similarities to the rocking-lapping figuration from Tintagel (Act I) and a similar regular ostinato from En Saga (Act III). The lyrical-dramatic side is to the fore and Lloyd does not embrace or even flirt with dissonance.

George Lloyd died in 1998 at the age of eighty-five. He shares a birth year with Benjamin Britten whose resounding celebrations have distracted from Lloyd’s centenary. Even so the composer’s family and related institutions have backed a series of performances and events that have given Lloyd’s reputation a deserved boost. We must hope for more.

Surrey Opera have a reputation for championing unusual repertoire. Last year they gave the world Première of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Thelma. Given the success of Iernin I do hope that they might be tempted if they are feeling ambitious to take on Boughton’s Arthurian Cycle of music-dramas or Holbrooke’s Cauldron of Annwn. As yet there are no signs of revival of John Socman or The Serf but they certainly represent promising prospects.

Croydon and its catchment can take considerable pride in Trinity School. The campus is welcoming and impressive and the glorious concert hall and music school provided a comfortable and inspiring venue for this rare revival of a full length opera which started at 7.30 pm and finished at about 10.30pm. I trust that attendances were better on the Friday and Saturday nights. I would estimate that at best only 20% of the seats were occupied.  The head-teacher must also be congratulated for a sense of humour. His imposingly confident seated portrait in the foyer shows this gentleman’s thumb firmly over the word ‘school’ in the nameplate on the back of the bench against which he leans back. He may well have been trying to tell us something.

Other Lloyd concert highlights can be found listed at http://www.georgelloyd.com/

For me the pick promises to be at Worthing Assembly Hall, Worthing BN11 1HQ with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons at 2.30 pm on Sunday 10 November 2013 in Lloyd’s exultantly romantic 6th Symphony. Not to be missed.

You can still catch performances of Iernin but you will need to go to Cornwall. There are performances at St John’s Hall, Alverton St, Penzance TR18 2QR on Friday 1 and Saturday 2 November 2013 at 7.30pm. Tickets: 01736 810 181.

There is also a complete CD recording of Iernin on Albany TROY 121-3 given by Marilyn Hill Smith, Claire Powell, Geoffrey Pogson, Henry Herford and Malcolm Rivers with the BBC Singers and BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by the composer.

Rob Barnett