Folk Tale and Myth Combine in Dove’s Swanhunter

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Jonathan Dove, Swanhunter: Soloists  instrumental Ensemble / Justin Doyle. (conductor),  Linbury Theatre,  Royal Opera House, London, 7.4.2015 (CC)

Lemminkäinen: Adrian Dwyer
Mother: Ann Taylor
Louhi   : Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
Swan: Suzanna Shakespeare
Soppy Hat: Christopher Diffey
Death  : Matthew Hargreaves

Director: Hannah Mulder
Designs/ Puppet Direction: Rachael Canning
Lighting Design: Richard Howell
Movement Director: Anna Morrissey


Lasting a mere 70 minutes (so with its 7pm start, a really early train home), Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton’s opera on a story from the Finnish Kalevala is a curious animal. Described by the composer as “a celebration of singing”, Dove’s script is to celebrate the many different types of singing, “from the lowest notes of Death, to the highest notes of the Swan, and at the heart of it is the magical singing of Lemminkäinen and his mother”.

 There is plenty to appeal to the younger members of the audience (there were many youngsters at the performance I attended); but there are also many dividends to reap from the musical perspective also. The co-production between Opera North and The Wrong Crowd is a solid one. Puppetry is fairly sparingly but always intelligently used, while lighting evocatively sets the scene for the action – a campsite with silhouetted mountains in the background (Richard Howell’s lighting is a joy throughout). The space on the sparely filled stage is well used throughout. All in all this is a most intelligent production.

 The story may be familiar: Lemminkäinen is set on travelling to the icy North to find a wife, despite his mother’s objections. He has to face some tasks set by Louhi before he could marry one of her daughters. These tasks sound like some initiation experiences into a Satanic cult: to face the Devil’s Elk, and the Swan on Death’s River.

 Although the score is referred to as ‘Nordic folk inspired’, the first impression seemed to be that of the Stravinsky of Soldier’s Tale, as Tom Greed’s solo violin made it folksy. Dove is a fine composer, who writes well for his instruments but is unafraid of stretching them (the scoring here is for violin, horn, accordion, harp, percussion and double-bass). He also knows how to make his scoring really tell dramatically, but his music is not particularly memorable. Any lasting impression this evening might have made was because of the coming together of the various elements, of which music was just one. He writes well for voices, whether solo or in ensemble (there are quite a few of the latter, and the purity of their delivery pointed to this group of young singers really gelling as musicians). The writing for soprano (the Swan sung by the magnificent Suzanne Shakespeare) is difficult, ultra-high and florid. Shakespeare seemed the perfect interpreter.

 The female voices were of a consistently high standard. Ann Taylor was a touching mother, We see her in the corner of the stage, at home while Lemminkäinen is off on his adventures). Rebecca Afonwy-Jones was a fine Louhi. Matthew Hargreaves, at the other registral extreme to Shakespeare, was an imposing Death, while Adrian Dwyer was believably intrepid and full of youthful spring in the hands and voice of Adrian Dwyer. Christopher Diffey made a fine fist of the smaller but crucial role of Soppy Hat.

 After this set of performances at the Linbury (which ends April 11) this production of Swanhunter will tour the UK, taking in Leeds, Poole, Cambridge, Doncaster, Salford, Alnwick, Hexham, Canterbury and Harrogate. It is certainly worth catching, offering as it does a glimpse of the magical alternate reality of folk tale and myth.

 Colin Clarke