Enthusiastic Performances of 1920s Triple Opera Bill by Birmingham Conservatoire

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Holst, Vaughan Williams & Ravel, Savitri, Riders to the Sea & L’Enfant et les sortilèges: Students of Birmingham Conservatoire / Fraser Goulding (conductor), Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, 10.3.2016. (GR)


Director: Michael Barry
Design: Colin Judges
Costumes: Jennet and Alan Marshall
Lighting: Charlie Morgan Jones

In his programme introduction to the Birmingham Conservatoire’s 2016 operatic venture, their Head of Vocal and Operatic Studies, Professor Julian Pike, stressed the variation in facets that their Triple Bill would portray – ‘spiritual, filial and parental love and suffering, as well as impulsive human behaviour all find voice’. The students of the Vocal and Instrumental Departments of Birmingham Conservatoire fulfilled a promise with talent and flair, but above all lavish enthusiasm. I saw the first of the four performances at the Crescent Theatre on 10th Mar. The three operas have both common and diverse threads: all were premiered in the 1920s by composers not renowned for their output in this medium – Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Maurice Ravel – while possessing dissimilar settings and style. It proves to be an inspired combination.

Holst’s chamber opera Savitri hails from Mahãbharata, a Sanskrit epic of ancient Indian dynasty and philosophy. Originally located in a wood, this production places the action indoors, with an Indian chair as the eponymous wife awaits her husband’s return, but forest-manager Satyavan in three piece suit appears more undertaker than lumberjack. He does have an axe, but it is no ‘deadly foe’ to his trees or ‘could lay them low.’ After a shaky start, bass-baritone Michael Lam as Death, cuts an imposing figure as an Eastern potentate, booming out his ‘I am the gate that opens for all’. Four dancers give this Summoner his Angels of Death, messengers that hypnotically move their arms along to the mysticism of the off-stage choir and the ethereal tones of the reduced Conservatoire ensemble – a collective sound reminding me of Holst’s Neptune. Robert Tilson as Satyavan is suitably bemused by the slavish influence of maya (illusion) on their existence, while lyrically expressing such shadows in his ‘Love to the lover’ episode. Cecily Redmond is an admirable Savitri, lovingly supportive of her husband when he collapses in ‘I am with thee’ and highly persuasive in her later discourses with the Grim Reaper, convincing the Just One to live up to his name and admit that ‘Even Death is maya’.

Of the three items that comprise this operatic venture, I enjoyed the second one, Riders to the Sea, the most. RVW has written some magnificent ‘Sea’ music and snatches of this are present in his adaptation of John M Synge’s play of the same name. This rendition from the music department of City, Birmingham’s third university, was excellent throughout. The designs of Colin Judges graphically depict the interior of a remote poverty-stricken cottage on the isle of Inishmaan in Galway Bay: open fire, rough chimney breast, spinning wheel, upright chairs, corner lamp, kitchen table and statutory cooking utensils. As the tragedy unfolded, the eighteen-strong string section (led by Yu-Mien Sun) and the rest of the orchestra generate apprehension and foreboding, a mood echoed magnificently by the vocalists, with the sheer intensity of the encompassing weather never far away. It is said that those that perish at sea are those who are not afraid of it. Such bravura must have been in the souls of matriarch Maurya’s kin: husband, father-in-law and four sons having already been victims of a watery grave.  And with number five missing and the sixth planning a visit to a horse fair on the mainland, ominous chords and vocal lines abound. Samantha Oxborough as Maurya both acted and sang her part consummately – the outstanding vocal performance of the evening. Whether comparing the value of a horse to the life of son Bartley (David Phillips) or sprinkling he last of the holy water upon her dead son’s corpse, Oxborough is perfect for the role – quality and evenness of tone, good diction and fine dynamic range. Maurya’s two daughters offer sterling support: Aimée Fisk as Cathleen, trying to keep busy at her wheel and keep things going, together with her sister Nora (Hannah McDonald) preparing food for their meagre existence. The closing scene is riveting.

Any element of gloom to the evening’s entertainment quickly disperses with Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges and didn’t the students enjoy themselves, all twenty-four named individually in the programme? From a poem by Colette, it’s one of those operas that gives the maximum number of players a chance to tread the boards, true to Conservatoire tradition (this figure doubles here with two distinct cast lists). The easel and globe indicate we are in a primary school hall and Michael Barry chooses 1955 for his date; Barry doubles as choreographer and with the assistance of Elise Fairley (presumably with much rehearsal) did a grand job. Chloe Pardoe heads the cast, a spoilt brat of a child; having created havoc in the classroom by refusing to do his homework and deliberately spilling his ink-well on the floor, she generally is the proverbial pain. The aggravation l’enfant causes comes back to taunt him, typified by the antics of the outrageously costumed chairs and extravagant tea service – all lapped up by the audience. Particularly amusing was the Maths Teacher of Charles St. John, with everyone getting their sums wrong. It is all nonsense of course, but in the best Edward Lear fashion, with owl and pussy-cats to prove it. And all these sortilèges (spells) have a desired effect, marked by Pardoe’s plaintive closing cry of ‘Maman’.

A great team effort all round!

Geoff Read

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