Peter Pan Joins Canon of Opera’s Mythic Narratives with Mixed Results

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ayres, Peter Pan:  (Company Premiere) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Erik Nielsen (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 23.5.2015 (GPu)
Peter Pan: Iestyn Morris
Wendy: Marie Arnet
John: Nicholas Sharratt
Michael: Rebecca Bottone
Mrs Darling / Tiger Lily: Hilary Summers
Mr Darling / Captain Hook: Ashley Holland
Nana / Starkey: Aidan Smith
Tootles: Simon Crosby Buttle
Slightly: Martin Lloyd
Curly: Laurence Cole
Nibs: Joe Roche
Smee: Mark Le Brocq


Director: Keith Warner
Set Designer: Jason Southgate
Costume Designer: Nicky Shaw
Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet
Choreographer: Michael Barry
Aerial and Fight Director: Ran Arthur Braun
Chorus Master: Alexander Martin


Like any story that has achieved the status of myth within a given culture (such as, for example, the stories of Orpheus, Odysseus and King Arthur, Faust, Laila and Majnun, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet etc.), that of Peter Pan demands retelling after retelling. Such retellings (and their necessary modification of the myth) are validations of its continuing importance. The story’s mythical quality is strikingly evidenced in the fact that Barrie himself found it necessary to return to the material several times to begin to get at its deeper significance (starting as an episode in the novel The Little White Bird in 1902, followed by the stage play Peter Pan, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up two years later and the prose narrative Peter and Wendy of 1911.) Even before Barrie himself had properly finished with his evolving ‘myth’, others were working with it. In 1906 his publishers extracted the relevant chapters from The Little White Bird, had them illustrated by Arthur Rackham and published the results as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

Since then many other artists have produced their own versions of the myth – as films, novel, picture books, pantomimes, stage musicals, ballets and video games – to think only of the examples that come most readily to mind. On the day I sat down to write this review (May 25, 2015) The Times contained a review (by Dominic Maxwell) of a production, by Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel, of Barrie’s play at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, describing it as a “bold and often brilliant reinvention of JM Barrie’s great creation”, in which “the story starts not in the Darling family’s Edwardian nursery but in a First World War field hospital where Wendy is a nurse, reading Peter Pan to a patient”. Scholarly (and pseudo-scholarly) interpretations of ‘Peter Pan’ (i.e. the myth rather than just Barrie’s text) abound, and continue to be published with some regularity.  Now here is what is, I think, the first operatic retelling. It does nothing really radical with Barrie’s tale – no shifts in time or place, for example, although Lavinia Greenlaw’s generally effective libretto necessarily strips out a lot of what isn’t essential and abridges a good deal.

Watching it (with Barrie’s plot stripped down) made me realize something which ought to have occurred to me before – how perfectly Barrie’s narrative adheres to a structure familiar from Shakespeare’s comedies; in which the play begins in a ‘real’ world which is fraught with problems for some or all of the characters, how some of the characters are displaced to a second imaginary or dream world in which different ‘laws’ apply, followed by a final return to the original reality, which can now be understood a little differently both by the characters and the audience. The most perfect Shakespearean example is A Midsummer Night’s Dream (beginning in courtly Athens – transporting the thwarted young lovers to the Wood outside Athens – and then returning the action of the play back to the Athenian court).

The affinity with A Midsummer Night’s Dream was reinforced by the decision here to have the same singers double the roles of Mr. Darling and Captain Cook (Ashley Holland) and Mrs. Darling and Tiger Lily (Hilary Summers), just as it has become commonplace, since Peter Brook’s landmark production of the Dream in 1970, to double the roles of Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania in Shakespeare’s play. In both cases, the doubling serves, among other things, to make an audience think about how the ‘real’ world and the ‘dream’ world are alike and how they differ. For Wendy the ‘dream’ world of Neverland in one sense offers only more of the same, since she is trapped by the same gender stereotypes that she has, physically, left behind – she is initially shot down by an arrow from one of the Lost Boys before she has even landed and is immediately thrust into the role of mother, so that her destiny here seems to be just what it was likely to have been back in ‘real’ London. But the ‘dream’ experience at least increases her understanding of the stereotyping she is fighting against (as her mother, as Tiger Lily, is able to take on a masculine role in the dream world.) Michael and John are finally happy to return to the nursery – Barrie’s acute study of the tension between contrary impulses in childhood, the impulse to freedom and the impulse to security, suggests the possibility of a kind of compromise, after the experience of freedom has revealed its negatives at least as much as its positives. Barrie’s ‘myth’ of gender, of childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience (in Blake’s sense), his exploration of seeming antitheses, like the routine and the spontaneous (though fighting the pirates in Neverland (i.e. trying to mimic the overthrow of the father?) comes to seem in many ways just as much a matter of routine and repetition as going to and from work on the train and spending each day “adding things up and taking things away” as Greenlaw’s Wendy describes Mr. Darling’s daily work.

Greenlaw’s libretto, then, successfully re-presents (and, indeed, at times clarifies important dimensions of the ‘Peter Pan’ myth) – no one retelling can deal with all of the dimensions of an enduring myth. I am less sure, however, that Philp Ayres’s music does much to explicate or enhance the myth. For the most part it is competent, apt and often quite exciting, sustaining the mood created by words and staging, but never seeming to be the driving force behind what is going on or ever becoming at all memorable. I found myself suspecting that much of this often powerful music might sound better and be more satisfying if heard as a free-standing work, since it wasn’t altogether integrated with text and staging. A shame, for Ayres is a better and more individual (if always eclectic) composer than one would deduce just from this one work.

Erik Nielsen conducts well, judging dynamics and pace in ways that assist the singers (in music which might not of itself). The set design by Jason Southgate generally works very well, though its reduction of the space available on the large stage of the Millennium Centre osometimes makes things overcrowded and there are one or two brilliant touches, such as the well-used motif of the train and, especially the splendid hybrid creature made up of a grandfather clock and a crocodile, of which many a surrealist would have been proud. The flying is impressive too and theatrically effective – it occurs to me that Iestyn Morris, who also sang the role of Peter Pan in the premiere production of the opera in Stuttgart in 2013, must have put in more stage-flying miles than any opera singer since the heydays of Baroque opera. The casting of a counter tenor in the role is shrewd in terms of several of Barrie’s (and therefore Greenlaw’s) themes – such as the possibility / (im)possibility of real escape from a society’s gender stereotypes, the borderlines between childhood and adulthood and much else. Morris sings well, especially when briefly and rarely, given the chance of a set-piece, of a kind at least approaching an old-fashioned aria. Indeed it would be hard to be negative about any of the singers. All do what is asked of them with competence and assurance. Hilary Summers is particularly striking as both Mrs Darling and (especially) Tiger Lily, while Marie Arnet articulates a certain poignancy in Wendy and Rebecca Bottone, as Michael, youngest of the three Darling children, captures the physical movements and gestures of a young boy quite beautifully (and is disturbingly sexy in the process!). Aidan Smith’s barking and growling Nana was well received by the children in the audience (and, I must admit, by the child in me).

So, some reservations, which mostly centre on the insufficiently operatic and theatrical nature of Richard Ayres’s music (not on its absolute value as music) but, for the most part (save for a few longueurs in Act Two) this is a good night’s theatre, which seemed to be appreciated by most of the audience (both old and young) on the night I was there (I was unable to attend the first night, so reviewed the second performance)

Glyn Pursglove


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