Jonathan Finney’s lovely new opera A Kind Man deserves wider exposure

United KingdomUnited Kingdom New Palace Opera’s A Kind Man: Soloists, London Concertante / Jonathan Finney (conductor). Hoxton Hall, London, 12.6.2022. (KB)

Gerrit Paul Groen (Tommy) (c) Ciaran O’Meara

Director – Paul Higgins
Set and Costume designer – Harry Pizzey
Lighting designer – Ali Hunter

Tommy Carr – Gerrit Paul Groen
Eve – Philippa Boyle
Miriam – Lizzie Holmes
Arthur – Rafael Flutter
Doctor McElvey – Gerard Delrez
Henry Arnold – Kieran White
Daphne Arnold – Zoe South

Jonathan Finney, protean tenor and co-founder of New Palace Opera, has the ultimate ‘what I did in lockdown’: he wrote his first opera, A Kind Man, based on Dame Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, and the first opera inspired by any of her works. Now, post-lockdown, the opera has received its première production at Hoxton Hall, an enchanting Victorian music hall which has become a thriving local arts centre.

In the course of more than forty years’ operagoing, I have seen so many new operas appear, the majority of which have rapidly disappeared. But I really feel that this one has the potential to be a keeper. It tells a compelling and lucid story with which the audience can engage. It requires modest performing forces (so many of English National Opera’s and Covent Garden’s new commissions have had a short shelf life because they require everything but the kitchen sink). Because it is written by a singer, the vocal lines and orchestration are singer-friendly and most of the libretto, except for the occasional soprano-on-soprano dispute. can be easily heard. Most important of all, the musical language is grateful, beautiful, easy on the ear, accessible, and original. So many first operas (even Wagner’s!) are heavily inspired by other composers, but apart from a very faint fragrance of Janáček, and possibly a slight whiff of John Adams, the style is entirely Finney’s own. He gives each character their own musical voice – troubled ostinati underpinning the heroine Eve’s uneasiness; consistent warmth for her husband Tommy, the ‘kind man’ of the title; shrill tirades for her embittered sister; stern dignity for the conflicted doctor. It is a loveable opera.

The story is simply told, Eve and her husband Tommy, grieving over the death of their daughter, face further tragedy when Tommy is diagnosed with cancer, but he makes a complete, inexplicable recovery and finds that he has acquired a gift of healing. This ‘kind man’ dispenses his gift freely to those in need, but when he is tricked into accepting payment the gift fades away and he dies soon afterwards, leaving Eve to face the future with her young nephew. A cast of seven, an orchestral ensemble of thirteen, and a supremely simple but effective production by Paul Higgins are all that is needed to bring the tale to life.

That the run of four performances went ahead at all is a tribute to the determination of all involved. Covid had stormed through the cast, taking out the soprano, the bass and the understudies, and shortly before this, the final show, the replacement soprano had also succumbed. Fortunately, Finney was able to persuade the amazing Philippa Boyle to take over the role of Eve at less than thirty hours’ notice, an act of considerable courage on both their parts. Virtually sight-reading this long and difficult role from a stand at the side of the tiny stage, she sang gloriously while assistant director Keiko Sumida walked the role, giving a portrayal of marvellous sensitivity and subtlety which fairly broke the heart. Because she was careful to mouth the words, and because she was so close to Boyle, the two created a single performance between them.

Gerrit Paul Groen was utterly wonderful as Tommy, with a portrayal full of such warmth and radiant goodness that it bade fair to burst out of the tiny auditorium, and a vocal expansiveness that sounded as though he is heading straight for Wotan. Lizzie Holmes as Miriam, Eve’s discontented sister, gave a telling depiction of a woman hardened by life’s disappointments. In the Covid-induced absence of the singer cast as the Doctor, Gerard Delrez sang from the pit with his customary nobility while Higgins acted extremely well onstage. Again, the two created a single character. It was especially good to see Zoë South back onstage where she belongs, in the short but effective role of Daphne Arnold, a pain-racked woman healed by Tommy’s gift, and Kieran White sang sweetly as her son. Treble Rafael Flutter, as Eve’s nephew Arthur, sang beautifully and acted with a charm and self-possession beyond his years. Finney conducted the London Concertante, who played their hearts out for him.

NPO had taken care to market the opera well, and a BBC Radio 3 interview had given further publicity. At this performance they were rewarded with a very good house, which appeared to be composed of operagoing regulars and members of the local community. All were highly enthusiastic, and everyone to whom I spoke said how much they had enjoyed it. I hope so much that other companies take it up. This lovely piece deserves wider exposure.

Katie Barnes

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