Metcalf’s Under Milk Wood a Triumph in Dylan Thomas Centenary Year

United KingdomUnited Kingdom John Metcalf, Under Milk Wood: Production by Taliesin Arts Centre (Wales) with Le Chien Qui Chante (Quebec) and Companion Star (New York) in association with Welsh National Opera / Wyn Davies (music director), Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. 11.4.2014 (PCG)  

Michael Douglas Jones (bass-baritone) – Captain Cat
Karina Lucas (mezzo-soprano) – Rosie Probert, Mrs Cherry Owen, Mrs Willy Nilly, Mrs Utah Watkins
Eamonn Mulhall (tenor) – Reverend Eli Jenkins, Mog Edwards
Richard Morris (baritone) – Mr Waldo, Mr Ogmore, Cherry Owen, Utah Watkins, Tom-Fred, Inspector of Cruelty
Elizabeth Donovan (soprano) – Polly Garter, Myfanwy Price, Mrs Butcher Beynon, Mrs Floyd
Helen-Jane Howells (soprano) – Gossamer Beynon, Lily Smalls, Mrs Pugh
Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano) – Mrs Ogmore Pritchard, Mrs Organ Morgan, Bessie Bighead, Mae Rose-Cottage
Paul Carey Jones (baritone) – Sinbad Sailors, Dancing Williams, Mr Pritchard, Mr Pugh, Mr Floyd, Willy Nilly, Fisherman
Wyn Davies (light tenor) – Organ Morgan


Musicians and Production
Parmela Attariwala – viola, violin, crwth; Deian Rowlands – harp, Lever harp; Jose Zalba Smith – flutes; Paul Stoneman – percussion
Simon Banham – Stage and costume design
Michael Beer – Sound design
Paula Danckert Foley – Director



At the time of his death Dylan Thomas was contemplating the composition of an opera libretto for Igor Stravinsky, but this never materialised and Stravinsky contented himself with writing his In memoriam Dylan Thomas employing in its central section a setting Thomas’s poem Do not go gentle into that good night. Unfortunately for those of us who love Dylan Thomas, the results were less than satisfactory, with Stravinsky’s employment of an angular musical language which appeared to deliberately set out to go against the grain of Thomas’s poetic diction. And given Thomas’s noted dilatoriness in responding to commissions – the gestation of Under Milk Wood took some ten years – it may be doubted that the projected collaboration would ever have actually been consummated.

The radio play Under Milk Wood was also left in a state of some chaos at the time of Thomas’s death. In May 1953, six months before the poet’s death, a rendition was given in New York – a recording of this performance exists – but Thomas then continued to revise the work for the BBC radio production which only took place two months after his death; and there is some doubt as to what in fact his final intentions for the text were. The final version as now established was to some extent the creation of Welsh composer Daniel Jones, a friend of the poet, who had to put the final scenes into order. The play has formed the basis for operatic treatment before – Austrian composer Akos Banlaky attempted a setting (in German translation) some years ago which was not well received, possibly because of some producer’s glosses which went against the grain of Thomas’s carefully contrived Welsh milieu such as the conversion of the Reverend Eli Jenkins into a Catholic priest. There has also been a French version by François Narboni; but so far as I can tell John Metcalf is the first composer to have attempted a setting of Thomas’s original.

Metcalf has inevitably made considerable cuts in Thomas’s wordy original in order to bring the opera within reasonable confines of time, but in view of the poet’s own indecision about the final text this cannot be objectionable. As it is we have around an hour-and-a-half of music, given without an interval which would have ruined the continuity of the narrative and the music as it revolves around a slow-moving chromatic sequence of keys depicting the passing of the day. The opera was first given in Swansea last week, but because of other reviewing commitments for this site I was unable to attend this; however I was delighted to be able to make it to the Cardiff performance, given in the smallish but lively-sounding Sherman Theatre. The Swansea première seems to have attracted fairly limited attention from national critics, but those who did attend – John Allison and Rian Evans in particular – seem to have garnered favourable impressions, although adverse comments were made about the fact that Thomas’s sometimes earthy humour was under-characterised. I must admit that I find these criticisms misplaced. There was not only plenty of variety in the textures and settings, but there was also an admirable admixture of humour in a manner that we have not eard in modern opera since the death of Ligeti – by which I mean sheer musical humour, not just audience laughter which arises from the text or some quirk of directorial inspiration. There was plenty of genuine laughter which was a spontaneous reaction to some delightfully quirky touches of instrumentation and orchestral underpinning of the text.

Using a very small but resonant ensemble of instruments, Metcalf ensured that much of the text came across even to those unfamiliar with the original play. Although – and especially given the gratifyingly large attendance – one suspects that many of the listeners here will already have known the original word for word. This can sometimes disconcert performers. Some years ago, giving a recital of sections of my own The Children of Húrin to members of the Tolkien Society of Oxford, Marion Milford commented that it was quite unnerving to realise that the members of the audience knew every word better than she did. But in fact in this performance of Under Milk Wood most of the text came across loud and clear, although inevitably the male voices fared better in this respect than the female ones. The singers were a very mixed bunch, ranging from full operatic style (Paul Carey Jones particularly impressive with every word delivered with relish) to a cabaret-type performance from Wyn Davies as Organ Morgan (again every word crystal-clear) who also directed the performance from the keyboards. The other singers took on multiple roles and chorus (only the principal roles are listed above), sometimes switching from one part to another which occasionally took the listener by surprise – possibly some subtle differentiation in costume might have helped – but any such confusion was quickly resolved. The orchestral players also moved quickly between various instruments, and some characters – such as the Reverend Eli Jenkins – were distinguished by the use in the accompaniment of traditional Welsh instruments including a Celtic harp and the crwth, a sort of bowed lyre with sympathetic strings. Some of the singers also participated in the provision of additional percussion effects, and even an accordion part played with delightful insouciance by Paul Carey Jones.

The reviews of the Swansea production drew attention to Metcalf’s use of sound effects which were regarded as a reflection on the play’s origin as a work for radio. In fact these effects, never just electronic additions to the score which drew unwanted attention to themselves, were subtly integrated into the whole in a manner which added atmosphere without sounding at all out of place; and the stereo distribution of these sounds across the wide Sherman stage added to their effect. The production, basic in general outline (as was inevitable in a production designed for touring to different venues), was enhanced by some beautiful projections onto screens at the back of the stage which also added to the overall effect; Ethan Forde and John Bishop were credited with projection and lighting designs.

I am delighted to be able to report that Metcalf was willing to allow Thomas’s songs to be heard to their full effect in a series of often very beautiful arias, of which Polly Garter’s returned at intervals as a sort of refrain (radiantly sung by Elizabeth Donovan). The Reverend Eli Jenkins has of course two poems to recite in the play, and these were clearly intended by Thomas to be gently satirical in intent; the preacher is a dilettante whose rhymes are often all too predictable, and his heartfelt ruminations about life in Llareggub are betrayed by his lack of poetic imagination. Eamonn Mulhall delivered both settings with charm and grace, and thankfully Metcalf treated the Evening Hymn light-heartedly in a way which gave a far better impression of Thomas’s intentions than the syrupy sentimentality of the arrangement of the words to the tune of Troyte’s chant with which is so often inflicted on us. Helen-Jane Howells and Gweneth-Ann Jeffers also made their own impact in a series of character roles.

This light-hearted treatment also had the advantage of drawing attention to the emotional core of the play, the encounter between the dozing Captain Cat and his long-dead love Rosie Probert. With little assistance from the production – there was no ethereal suggestion of a dream – Metcalf made sure that this confrontation came across with the full force that it needs. Michael Douglas Jones (who also subsumed the role of the First Voice into his role) and Karina Lucas began simply, with their words underpinned by violin and flute players (who came forward into the acting arena) and a simple keyboard accompaniment; and then, as the music gathered pace, the addition of the percussion and harp came across with the impact of a thunderbolt. “Captain Cat is crying,” sang Richard Morris simply at the end of this scene; I was crying too, and I am sure I was not the only one. This sort of moment is rare in opera, and almost unknown in modern scores; even when one can appreciate the means by which the composer has achieved the effect, the electric charge of the music cannot be gainsaid. Under Milk Wood in John Metcalf’s treatment is a work that communicates immediately with its audience, drawing them into the action not only by dramatic means but also by the sheer persuasive power of the music; and that surely is what opera is all about – or should be.

One hopes that the work will have a continuing life beyond the current series of touring performances which terminates in Caernarvon on 15 April. The capacity audience, cheering wildly at the end, certainly testified to the impact of the work. Dare one hope for a recording, too?

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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