‘Thrillingly Heroic’: Welsh-Language Opera Y Tŵr’s Underplays the Symbolism but the Performances Impress

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Guto Puw, Y Tŵr [The Tower] – first performance: Music Theatre Wales Ensemble / Richard Baker (conductor), Vale of Glamorgan Festival (collaboration between Music Theatre Wales and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru), Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, 19.5.2017. (PCG)

 Female - Caryl Hughes; Male - Gwion Thomas; Photo credit - Clive Barda.
Y Tŵr Caryl Hughes (Female) Gwion Thomas (Male) (c) Clive Barda

Female – Caryl Hughes
Male – Gwion Thomas,

Director – Michael McCarthy
Designer – Samal Blak
Lighting designer – Ace McCarron

Given the reputation of the Welsh for their prowess in singing, both solo and choral, it is perhaps surprising that there are so few operas written in the language; indeed, full-length operas in Welsh are as rare as hen’s teeth. Only one essay in the genre, Joseph Parry’s Blodwen (1878), ever clocked up much in the way of performances, and even that score was reduced to occasional appearances of excerpts in concert after the composer’s death in 1903. In an informative programme note for this production of Guto Puw’s Y Tŵr, Geraint Lewis refers disparagingly to a 1978 recording of Blodwen which derived from semi-amateur centenary performances at the Menai Festival; but those performances were given in a revised orchestration with substantial excisions and highly variable singing, and we really could do with a proper scholarly restoration of the score. One never knows.

One might have thought that the advent of Welsh National Opera in the 1940s would have led to more performances of Welsh-language opera, especially with the appearance of international singers of Welsh origin such as Sir Geraint Evans and Stuart Burrows; but although these singers were quite happy to perform Welsh songs both in concert and on record, there was only one Welsh opera which emerged during these years in the shape of Arwel Hughes’s Molière adaptation Serch yw’r Doctor (“Love the Doctor”). Although they were quite happy setting Welsh texts in vocal and choral works, the other composers who furnished operas for the WNO during the succeeding years – Grace Williams, Alun Hoddinott, William Mathias and John Metcalf – all employed texts in English. It is only since 2000 that full-length Welsh operas have begun to make occasional appearances on stage, by composers such as Pwyll ap Sion and Geraint Lewis himself; so Guto Puw here joins a small but select company who have ventured into the territory of opera in the Welsh tongue.

One of the reasons adduced for the scarcity of Welsh opera in the past has been the lack of Welsh-speaking audiences (Welsh remains a minority language in much of the principality). Well, since the advent of the Welsh television channel S4C and a network of Welsh-medium schools, the Welsh language has gained a significant number of practitioners; and the provision of surtitles (as here) makes the text much more immediately accessible to current Anglophone audiences than would have been the case twenty or more years ago. Y Tŵr is based on a stage play by the late Gwenlyn Parry, expertly fashioned into a libretto by Gwyneth Glyn. The play itself has been revived several times since its première in 1978 and indeed has become one of the most-performed in the Welsh language (although the first professional production in 1988 under the iconoclastic director Ceri Sherlock seems to have undermined the unity of the play by casting it with six different actors rather than the original two).

The plot is basically straightforward: in the Act I a young couple (never identified by name) meet in a mountainside landscape and fall in love, despite the boy’s overwhelming passion for Suzuki motor bikes which cause momentary spasms of jealousy when the girl misunderstands the nature of his beloved. In the Act II the couple are now married, with a son who has left home, and middle-aged boredom has set in; the wife is having an affair with the husband’s boss, and the husband is made redundant in favour of a younger and more ambitious subordinate. In the final act the now elderly couple have been left very much to their own devices – the son cannot even be bothered to visit for Christmas – and while she is becoming increasingly frail and clumsy he is beginning to suffer from dementia, confusing his memories and recollections. Finally, she administers a lethal dose of drugs to spare him from further degradation. The language in which all this is delivered is contemporary and colloquial, with (as is usual in everyday Welsh) an admixture of English phrases – “Bloody hell”, etc – which root the action firmly in the real world. At the same there is an added dimension of symbolism in the ‘tower’ by which the couple ascend from one period of their lives to the next, and finally into the hereafter.

It is a pity that in this production by Michael McCarthy the elemental mystery of this symbolism is less than adequately differentiated. There is a ladder at the back of the stage which is clearly intended to convey the idea of the stairs by which the tower can be climbed; but nobody sets a foot upon it. Instead layers of carpet are peeled up one by one from the floor, and the stage is progressively denuded of furniture and props as the progress of the couple through life is depicted. This is further emphasised by having the singers applying further layers of makeup in front of dressing tables between acts, actions which distract from the music at these points without adding anything to the dramatic situation. I feel it was also a mistake to run the first two acts together without an interval; the play clearly falls into three distinct periods (characterised as Summer, Autumn and Winter) which really needed to be separated. In a production which was clearly designed for ease of touring, all of this was forgivable; but even so the sense of the blurring of lines between reality and symbolism was largely missed.

I have so far said absolutely nothing about Guto Puw’s music, which is an unforgiveable omission. As we know from his concert works, nearly all of which have a dramatic programme, the composer has a real gift for depictive music. This is particularly effective in the more mystical sections of the action; at the first appearance of the symbol of the tower towards the end of Act I, a theme appears which is a variant (not a direct quotation) of the Welsh lullaby Suo Gan; and this then gradually begins to permeate the score, becoming increasingly convoluted and troubled as the action progresses. This is a use of Wagnerian leitmotif technique at its best and most subtle, and the use of such a recognisable theme makes it all the more effective. There are other repeated touches too: the idea of a train, the symbol of passing existence, which recurs in all three acts and provides a chilling climax at the very end; and the woman’s vision of a butterfly which alights on the man’s face and then slowly becomes more and more sinister with the advancing years. The atmosphere of the final act, which might have become depressing, achieves a real chilling intensity (the composer told me that a small cut was made in the music here, but the length seemed to me just about right). And the chill was contrasted with moments of real emotional warmth with some almost romantic writing in the strings which touched the heart.

Where the atmosphere did falter was perhaps at the very beginning, with the pastoral idyll on the mountainside where the couple first fall in love. This might perhaps have been the fault of the players rather than the composer. I know from personal experience (I conducted by own opera Arcturus in this same theatre many years ago) that the deep pit at the Sherman has the habit of bringing out the sonority of wind instruments at the expense of solo strings. There were a number of passages where high flute or piccolo were combined with violin harmonics, and despite the best efforts of the instrumentalists the balance between the two did not blend in the manner which I imagine the composer might have intended. It may well be that in later performances – the opera is touring extensively over the next couple of months – greater assurance from the orchestra in perhaps more sympathetic acoustics may lead to a better-integrated sound.

One advantage of the deep Sherman pit however was that the singers never had to force their voices in order to be heard. Over two hours Caryl Hughes and Gwion Thomas paced themselves admirably over the course of what might have been a long evening: she producing ravishing high pianissimi one after the other and also letting rip thrillingly at climaxes, and he making a believable character out of the carefree boyfriend, jealous husband and disillusioned old man by turns. Both singers were helped by the composer’s considerate writing for the voices, not only in the more extended lyrical passages but also in the recitative-like more colloquial dialogue. There was none of the hiccoughing employment of vocal extremes that disfigures so much contemporary opera; the setting of the text was always naturally inflected and dramatically apposite. Even by the end Gwion Thomas was able to produce thrillingly heroic sounds as the dead husband rises to his final apotheosis in a manner that recalls Szymanowski’s King Roger.

It will certainly be gathered from the foregoing that I thoroughly enjoyed this evening (as indeed did the enthusiastic audience in a nearly capacity theatre), and not just because I know and like Guto Puw personally. I would like very much to hear the score again, although possibly with a larger body of strings (who might be able to sustain quieter passages more effectively) and a production which was allowed to more closely reflect the musical contrast between reality and underlying meaning. Richard Baker paced the music admirably, never allowing the action to hang fire even during the interludes between and during scenes which depicted the passage of time. This opera has been five years in the preparation (the first workshop sessions were held in April 2012) and has been well worth the wait. Audiences need by no means be deterred by the use of the Welsh language any longer. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that even non-Welsh-speaking singers should consider looking at the score; despite a reputation for difficulty, the Welsh language shares with Finnish the distinction of being the only wholly phonetic language in Europe, and once the basic rules are mastered it is both easy and rewarding to sing – as indeed reams of vocal and choral music by Welsh composers will testify.

Those interested in new opera are urgently recommended to look out for this production when it tours to Aberystwyth (23 May), Bangor (25 May), Mold (5 June), Swansea (15 June) and the Buxton Festival (17 July). Hopefully, as with John Metcalf’s Under Milk Wood a couple of years ago, we might also hope for a recording in due course.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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