Iain Bell’s New Opera Gives Musical Expression to David Jones’ Epic World War I Poem


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bell, In Parenthesis: (sung in English, Welsh, Latin and medieval Welsh) Soloists; Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Carlo Rizzi  (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 29.6.2016 (CC)

Photo credit: Bill Cooper.   Private John Ball; Andrew Bidlack, Bard of Brittannia_HQ Officer; Peter Coleman_Wright, Bard of Germania_Alice the Barmaid_The Queen of the Woods; Alexandra Deshorties, Lieutenant Jenkins; George Humphreys, Lance Corporal Lewis; Marcus Farnsworth, Sergeant Snell; Mark Le Brocq, Dai Greatcoat; Donald Maxwell, The Marne Sergeant ;Graham Clark,   Cast & Creative  Conductor; Carlo Rizzi, Director; David Pountney, Designer; Robert Innes Hopkins, Lighting Designer; Malcolm Rippeth,

Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Private John Ball: Andrew Bidlack
Bard of Britannia/HQ Officer: Peter Coleman-Wright
Bard of Germania/Alice the barmaid/Queen of the Woods: Alexandra Deshorties:
Sergeant Snell: Mark Le Brocq
Lieutenant Jenkins: George Humphreys
Lance Corporal Lewis: Marcus Farnsworth
Dai Greatcoat: Donald Maxwell
Private Watcyn: Joe Roche
Private Wastebottom: Martin Lloyd
The Marne Sergeant: Graham Clark
German Soldier/Runner: Simon Crosby Buttle

Director: David Pountney
Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Malcolm Rippeth
Tour Lighting: Ian Jones
Fight Director: Kevin McCurdy

Iain Bell is a composer who has established close links with the singer Diana Damrau, who seems to be something of a muse (he has composed three pieces for her). His opera A Christmas Carol of 2014 was staged at Houston Grand Opera; he is currently working on a cantata for the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, and a Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra.

In conjunction with librettists David Antrobus and Emma Jenkins, Bell has set Welsh poet David Jones’ epic poem In Parenthesis as an opera. Not Jones’ first encounter with World War I, this song-cycle for tenor and piano, The Undying Splendour sets verses by First World War poet J. W. Streets. (An excerpt can be heard on Bell’s own website here). Why the title In Parenthesis? As Bell himself says, “The war itself was a parenthesis – how glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of ‘18”.

Onto the combative world of World War I, Bell layers on the supernatural, firstly in Private Ball’s hallucinations early on and then later in the arrival of the Dryads that take over the final parts of the work, escorting the dead men in perhaps a parallel to the Valkyries concurrently over the river at the Festival Hall. (Die Walküre was being performed at the same time as Bell’s opera). The world of the Welsh Mabinogion, a selection of tales written in medieval Welsh dating from the 12th-13th centuries, of which Jones had a declared interest, is never far away.

The opera begins with the two Bards, Britannia and Germania with a Chorus of Remembrance, in a “place out of time”. After this atemporal introduction, time’s arrow re-establishes itself in England December 1915 where John Ball, a private in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, is late on parade. On the way to Southampton Docks, Ball hallucinates; over in France, a shell explodes, shattering the countryside’s peace. A Chorus of Remembrance observes in the manner of a Greek Chorus; on Christmas morning a German soldier sings a carol (“Es ist ein Ros’”); the English soldiers respond in their own language.

Post-interval, a Café in 1916 provides the setting before the men receive orders to go to the “magnetic South”. Next month, at the Somme, Ball has a breakdown during the shelling; his colleague Lewis is shot. We hear Dryads in the wood as the men are ordered to advance on Mametz Wood; the Queen of the Woods and her entourage bring death and destruction to the comrades. Ball is the only survivor, but he is shot in the leg; the Dryads garland the dead with flowers.

David Pountney’s staging shows the experienced hand of a master in its compact, effective delivery, its use of light, shadow-play and projection. This is Private Ball’s Orphic rite of passage; the Underworld is the “Wasteland of War”. By juxtaposing various worlds – the visceral battlefield against the Otherworld of mythic Dryads and, indeed, hints of Arthurian Knights of the Grail, Bell seeks to find a larger viewpoint, it would seem, from the insular, myopic world of soldiers actively involved in war. Ball’s hallucinations point to Otherworld journeyings more than hallucinations, it would seem.

The Bards of Britannia and Germania do not exist in the poem on which the opera is based, but do in Jones’ 1941 painting “Britannia and Germania Embracing” (to see an image, click here). They seem to link to the Choruses of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. Both parts were beautifully rendered by Peter Coleman-Wright and Alexandra Deshorties. The main character, Private Ball, is accorded a light tenor, with deliberate nudges towards Rossinian writing for those hallucinations; Andrew Bidlack excels, rising fully to the challenges. To differentiate the worlds of the real and the unreal, Bell uses fanfares and hymnic choruses for the soldiers’ life and a much more layered, ethereal sound for the supernatural. The idea for the latter was to freeze time. The final use of the “Salve Regina” is a wonderful gesture, tellingly made.

And yes, Bell’s writing is perhaps not as individual as one might hope. Some interludes tend towards the heavily filmic, but there are effective gestures here. The use of an uncharacteristically clear consonance at the mention of poet Rupert Brooke worked particularly well; elsewhere, English Pastoralism is discernible. For the tenor of Bidlack, Bell writes melismatic lines which continually fall under the shadow of Britten, whose influence we have already identified elsewhere. Bidlack, who has sung the roles of Beppe (Pagliacci) at the Met and Tonio (Fille du regiment) at Palm Beach, was lyrical and convincing in the main role, his aria “All alone in this little field” particularly memorable. His buddy, Lance Corporal Lewis, with whom he shares a poignant moment in a rare oasis of quiet on the Front, was well taken by Marcus Farnsworth. Wonderful to see Donald Maxwell there, strong as Dai Greatcoat, and Graham Clark as The Marne Sergeant. Mark le Brocq was a fine Sergeant Snell. Alexandra Deshorties it was who reappears as the Queen of the Woods, her final aria containing some of the finest and most touching music of the evening, and beautifully done on this particular evening.

The orchestral standard throughout, under the sure baton of Carlo Rizzi, was tremendous. A lot of work has clearly gone into this tour and there is little doubt that In Parenthesis was heard under the very best of circumstances.

There is a live performance of the entire work on ‘Opera on 3’ at 6:30pm on 2nd July.

Colin Clarke


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