Aldeburgh Festival premieres ‘Violet’ by Tom Coult and Alice Birch

Gripping, bleak, and thought-provoking

The Aldeburgh Festival got underway on Friday 3 June at Snape Maltings Concert Hall with the premiere of Tom Coult and Alice Birch’s opera ‘Violet’.

The apocalyptic tale documented the gradual disintegration of human life as a town and its inhabitants slowly come to realise how time is gradually, hour by hour, day by day, slipping away from them.

Set against an animated backdrop of constantly, the small company led by Anna Dennis in the title role. Richard Burkhard played Felix, Frances Gregory Laura, and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks The Clock Keeper.

Richard Burkhard as Felix and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (right) as The Clockkeeper (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Cohesive costume and set design by Cecile Tremolieres and Rosie Elnile gave the drama an Elizabethan feel with judicious use of trestle tables, ruffs, and tankards.

It was a compelling watch in part down to the manually updated display board documenting the days completed and hours lost, building tension and driving towards the world’s inevitable end. Composer Tom Coult’s characteristically inventive and descriptive score, played by the London Sinfonietta and conducted by Andrew Gourlay, sustained a sinister air throughout the 90-minute production.

In particular, the extensive use of pizzicato bass and low bass clarinet by Coult was a pleasing addition to an already rich and inventive score, reminiscent of Dudley Simpson’s resourceful use of chamber ensemble in his Doctor Who TV music scores in the mid-70s.

Anna Dennis as Violet (Photo: Marc Brenner)

I was particularly impressed with the concision in Coult’s writing. Driven partly by the libretto, itself a reflection of the story, there is an immediacy to the composer’s musical ideas that drives focus in the audience. At the same time, the music maintains originality and integrity throughout. It is a remarkable balancing act that serves the storytelling.

Its most potent storytelling twist was the outlying conceit: we know what’s going to happen at the end of the story long before most of the characters do by virtue of the display visible to all from the stage. Yet, as the realisation grows amongst the inhabitants, so the sense that this story needs to slow down because of the characters impending demise. That same sense of tension is present in Tom Coult’s music.

Frances Gregory as Laura (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Violet’s depression, driven by the regularity of the clock, slowly turns to hope for the central character as time is lost and society disintegrates. The conclusion is bleak and appropriately ambiguous, though the epilogue – a concluding animated sequence depicting computer-generated characters – jarred stylistically. I need to think further on what was being said in the epilogue.

What I liked most was the work’s efficiency (driven no doubt by the relentless loss of time the inhabitants of the town are experiencing themselves). It was that efficiency that helped make the production a compelling watch.

Anna Dennis possesses a magical voice – clear, distinct, rounded, and warm. She made light work of Coult many high notes and intricate melodic lines.

The co-production between Britten-Pears Arts and Music Theatre Wales was originally scheduled for premiere at the 2020 Aldeburgh Festival but was postponed due to the COVID pandemic.

‘Violet’ continues at the Aldeburgh Festival on 5th June (tickets from £10). There are performances at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff (8 June), Theatr Clwyd, Mold (19 June), Hackney Empire, London (23 June), and Buxton International Festival (18 July). It is a must-see.

Line-up revealed for an extended Aldeburgh Festival running from 3-26 June 2022

With 2021 heading towards its inexorable demise, news of events scheduled for 2022 hits my inbox and brings a smile to my face. I could do with some cheering up. I don’t want to be all doom and gloom about, wearing my heart on my sleeve (again), but it really can’t be overstated just how positive an impact a well-timed festival announcement can have, especially if that festival just happens to be situated in the most gorgeous (and arguably) perfect part of the UK.

The Aldeburgh Festival returns next year for its 73rd, spotlighting 50 years of Britten and Pears’ talent development scheme – The Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme, premiering 41 new works, and celebrating what would have been the 70th birthday of the late great much-loved composer and conductor Oliver Knussen.

Artists performing include Nicola Benedetti, composer and clarinettist Mark Simpson, pianist Clare Hammond, cellist Laura van der Heijden, chamber music from the Kaleidoscope Chamber Ensemble, The Hermes Experiment, and Piatti and Solem Quartets.

Composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Ivor Award-winning work Catamorphosis features in a CBSO concert. There’s music too from organist Anna Lapwood with a performance of her transcription of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. I spy too a performance on 4th June led by Mark Simpson featuring his blistering work for wind ensemble Geysir, and Mozart’s Gran Partita. There’s also a chance to hear the Echoes and Embers I heard at Lammermuir Festival earlier this year.

The press release is epic – running to 8 pages with detailed listings which are dizzying to look at. Visit the Britten Pears website and start dreaming of sunny days on the edge of a marsh looking out towards the North Sea. June 2022 looks set to be brilliant and be almost entirely based in East Suffolk.

The (kind of) 2020 Aldeburgh Festival

If memory serves me correctly, 2020 is the first time the 72-year-old Aldeburgh Festival won’t be going ahead. No surprises why. COVID.

This is notable because of the oft-told story of Benjamin Britten’s annual jamboree.

Fire at Snape Maltings Concert Hall back in 1967 on the eve of that year’s festival might have threatened proceedings. It didn’t. Triumph over adversity, etc.

Given the Maltings proximity to the North Sea there were countless occasions when flood could have brought things to an unceremonious end. It didn’t either.

Pestilence? Well. That’s a different story.

It’s easy to focus on the venues and events and the people I know who bring the thing I love to life in London. But when you receive a press release about your second home (I can’t afford a property there – I’d just like to think that at some point I might be able to) telling you what’s planned in the gaping hole created by its festival’s absence, then you’re going to stop, pause and reflect a bit.

Aldeburgh has like a good many other festivals this year, opened up its archive, reached for its digital platform and called upon its friends, associates and former colleagues to help keep the flame alight this year. There are programmes on BBC TV including, finally, a broadcast of Grimes on the Beach from a few years back (if you’ve not seen it YOU MUST), a trawl through the BBC archives for Britten on camera narrated by James Naughtie, and an intriguing invitation to recreate an artwork by John Cage from a few years back where visitors to the town got to hear multiple pieces of music all played at the same time. How delightfully John Cage.  There’s even the opportunity to submit your own memories of the festival for inclusion in a special digital timeline.

That these things are on offer is a lovely thing because they only serve to emphasise how important East Suffolk is to me. The yearning is way too much to bear (without a car to my name I can’t even justify to myself visiting my parents in their garden in West Suffolk, let alone heading to Aldeburgh Beach).

So, these warm gestures, alongside six broadcasts from yesteryear festivals, as well as the epic 1997 Radio 3 broadcast of the Britten-Pears Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano I have on cassette in my office, will have to suffice.

The Aldeburgh Festival 2020 begins in the hearts and minds of those who miss it on 12 June and runs until 28. Highlights include an ‘Opening Night’ broadcast of Britten on Camera on BBC Four followed by Struan Leslie’s Illuminations – a staging including circus performers of Britten’s Les Illuminations – seen for the first time on Britten Pears Arts’ YouTube Channel, Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach will be available on BBC iPlayer later this month, and BBC Radio 3 will broadcast six archive performances from Aldeburgh Festival between 19 – 26 June.