WNO’s Peter Pan Fails to do Justice to J M Barrie’s Tale

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Ayres, Peter Pan: Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Erik Nielsen (conductor). Royal Opera House, London, 25.7.2015 (CC)


Peter Pan: Iestyn Morris
Wendy: Marie Arnet
John: Nicholas Sharratt
Michael: Rebecca Bottone
Nana/Starkey: Aidan Smith
Mrs Darling/Tiger Lilly: Hilary Summers
Mr Darling/Captaim Hook: Ashley Holland
Tooties: Simon Crosby Buttle
Slightly: Martin Lloyd
Curly: Lawrence Cole
Nibs: Joe Roche
Smallest Boy: Fiona Harrison-Wolfe
Smee: Mark Le Brocq

Director: Keith Warner
Set Designer: Jason Southgate
Costume Designer: Nicky Shaw
Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet
Choreographer: Michael Barry

It was wonderful to see WNO back at Covent Garden; but perhaps a little less wonderful to see them in Richard Ayres’ opera on Peter Pan, in this co-production with the Komische Oper, Berlin. On paper, it’s all here: the special effects (the projected Tinkerbell, the fairy, is as ethereal and sparkly as they get), the story everyone knows. Plenty of children in the audience were ready to be entertained, too. But there is one major block. The composer and librettist have to do J. M. Barrie’s story justice, and that’s where the problems begin.

Richard Ayres describes, in an interview in the programme, how the Peter Pan story gave him an opportunity to write music that is “ungendered, ageless and strange”. Well, there are certainly influences there, of which perhaps top of the list is Janáček in some of the melodic writing but also in the use of brass. But the music itself is rather forgettable, if generally well scored. There are set arias, but one remembers only vague descriptors: the excellent, resonant-voiced Hilary Summers gives a memorable account of a Lullaby in her guise as Mrs Darling, but the angular lines seem incongruous to a lullaby’s function and so the tenderness so necessary is almost but not quite invoked. Wendy’s aria towards the end of the opera, deliciously sung by Marie Arnet, was another case in point. One basked in Arnet’s singing while wishing she were singing something of more substance. For the rest, one can only admire Iestyn Morris for learning and delivering his counter-tenor lines with such confidence, and Ashley Holland for changing character so swiftly from the pompous Mr Darling to a tremendously entertaining, pantomimish Captain Hook. Nicholas Sharratt and Rebecca Bottone, as John and Michael respectively, gave their roles with gusto, while Aidan Smith was a terrific Nana (the dog).

Setting a fairy tale as famous as this one is actually a huge responsibility. On occasion Ayres seems to set out to write deliberately dissonant and harsh music, but it fails to either thrill or gel in the context of the overall writing, which is all rather too anonymous. So it is our eyes are dragged to the stage to find the titillation so wanting from the sounds from the orchestra pit. But the staging itself is hardly perfect either, despite the trendy projection tricks and plenty of flying about for the principal characters (on eminently visible strings).  Outsize children’s alphabet building blocks do rather clutter up the stage and get in the way, and a railway train that moves around the front of the stage on rails in the manner of a children’s train set (and which at one moment got caught on a bit of scenery and had to be quickly freed by a cast member) is rather cumbersome. The deliberately awry perspectives of the train were presumably there to put one in mind of certain children’s programmes of the early seventies (later in the opera, the Pirates arrive by train rather than any other more traditional Pirate mode of transport); the play with the idea of the clock, from the tick-tock in the percussion early in Act 1 through the huge projection on stage, to the clock buried in the centre of a crocodile’s body were all well-judged, but failed to add up to very much at all.

The piece is rather too long for its materials, and starting at 7.40pm did not help. Looking at Ayres’ credentials (study with Morton Feldman and Louis Andriessen), the anonymity of the musical side of the evening came as something of a surprise. It did all feel rather distended, and there is only a limited of magic that can be gleaned from visual glitter. Perhaps if I were five and not 50 my view might be different.


Colin Clarke


For a review of the Cardiff premiere of this opera see


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