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.

Verdi’s Luisa Miller at London Coliseum

ENO’s production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller challenged musical and storytelling assumptions

I’ve waited a day before committing thoughts about ENO’s of Luisa Miller. There has been tremendous buzz about the production ever since press night, deservedly so it seems to me. At the same time, it would all too easy to go along with the crowd and say the same as everyone else.

Voices

©Tristram Kenton

Given that opera has so many different facets, taking time to reflect on how and why an experience resonated probably makes for better copy.

The top line message is undobutedly the strength of the voices. Right across the cast too Elizabeth Llewellyn’s smooth edged sonorities driven by unwavering support, kept close to the orchestral line. This created a solidity to the music-making that meant the fascinating score in itself held my attention.

Lewellyn’s voice combined with David Junghoon Kim (Rodolfo) made for some breathtaking duets – powerful expressions of love burnished with gold.

Similarly, bass Soloman Howard (Wurm) could have stood on stage and sung all night and I would have applauded like a mad thing. Like Llewellyn he sings with a consistent through-line, finished off with a warm tone and gratifyingly clear articulation.

Casting

©Tristram Kenton

What I appreciated most was how the casting challenged my assumptions.

It’s a difficult point to raise without running the risk of falling into a pit of diversity-related errors. There was a moment when the diverse casting spanning one family, and the seemingly unlikely-ness of the Rodolfo-Luisa pairing made me question the motivation casting.

Beyond that, Luisa and Rodolfo seemed less plausible than …. what?

That was when I began to identify what my assumptions were about casting. In short, I assumed I would have more obvious or overt visual cues as to the class divide between the characters. What I saw instead was (perhaps) a more international representation of divisions between race? And I appreciated being made to think about that.

Deeper appreciation of the score

During the production, identifying the assumption had another unexpected consequence: it prompted me to look beyond what I saw on stage and immerse myself more in the music and reflect on how that supported the storytelling.

This triggered a deeper appreciation of what was going on in the orchestra pit, and what surprised me the most where that was concerned were the unusual orchestral textures Verdi had created. To date, Verdi with all of his gilt edge, flamboyance and seeming sentimentality, was somebody I wanted to avoid. Now on the basis of Luisa Miller’s score I want to explore it further.

The set

©Tristram Kenton

There was a downside.

I wasn’t entirely convinced about the set. I liked its modernist feel. I really appreciated the house used in a variety of different permutations. I liked the inventiveness of the black ink seeping down the scenic backdrop during the third act. And I really responded to the movement in scene changes.

But this modernist feel demanded less distraction on the surface of the stage. It was the ‘mess’ on the stage which distracted my eye. Odd bits of direction too resulting in groups of dancers moving in different parts of the stage whilst action was going on elsewhere, also created a distraction. And whilst I appreciate that the daubing on the backdrops was important to the ongoing narrative, truth be told I did in the end find it a bit annoying after a while. Gratuitous maybe? I’m not quite sure.

A long conclusion

But there needs to be a parting shot. What was the last thing I thought as I left the auditorium? How very long the death scene felt. In terms of time it extended between ten and fifteen minutes (depending on where you see the deaths beginning), but it felt a lot longer. And I think that might be down to the direction.

There seemed to be a lot of shuffling around, but not very much dying. I’d need to look at the score and the libretto to reflect on exactly why Verdi devoted the time he did to the sequence, but it did leave me wondering whether the pace had dropped a bit.

The chorus

©Tristram Kenton

But let’s head towards the end on a high. The chorus was stunning, in particular when they sang from the front of the stage (The Coliseum feels like quite a barny old place in comparison to the Royal Opera House – I’ve no idea of the exact difference in size, indeed if there is one). When the entire ensemble sang as one my heart nearly burst – a remarkable power that provoked an unexpected emotional response.

Listen to Elizabeth Llewellyn in conversation about the role of Luisa Miller in an episode of the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast.

Review: Der Freischütz conducted by Laurence Equilbey featuring Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Johanni van Oostrum, and Chiara Skerath

An inventive thought-provoking production with captivating contributions from Johanni van Oostrum, the Insula Orchestra, and one or two illusionists.

Terrific orchestral playing in a generous acoustic that supported the period instrument Insula Orchestra   in the production of lean string sounds, and evocative woodwind textures. Possibly the best live theatrical pit sound I’ve heard in a long time. Conductor Laurence Equilbey is a passionate and efficient director, combining a clear beat with a dynamic expressive range. Her energy and precision can be heard in a range of orchestral textures, and contributed to a number of electrifying moments on stage. 

Soprano Johanni van Oostrum shone the brightest in amongst an impressive cast with her Act III Scene 2 Cavatine Und ob die Wolke sie verhulle, sending chills up the spine with a rounded tone, silky smooth legatos and gossamer octave leaps. Hers combined with the voice of Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Max, and the sometimes Mary Poppins-esque characterisation of Annchen by Chiara Skerath made for an exquisite first act trio Wie? Was? Ersatzen that didn’t quite muster the effort from the audience with the response it deserved. 

I’ve read some dismissive reviews about the stage direction and set design, drawing attention to the lack of shotguns in an opera about a shooting contest as being a creative failure. 

Seeing this year old production at its Paris premiere sat in the intimate art deco interior of Theatre des Champs-Elysees there was a sense that with the horrific events of recent terrorist atrocities still surprisingly fresh in the mind, that not seeing actual guns was a sensitive creative response. Whether this was an active choice when the production opened last year I’m not entirely clear. What the absence of guns resulted in however was a creative opportunity for the production, demanding more engagement on the part of the audience. The intent appeared to trigger (forgive the pun) the audience to use their imagination more, something that increased engagement. 

An array of illusions was deployed which met this dual aim of focusing audience attention on the hows and the whys. Sometimes the depiction of the magic bullets – white balls juggled, thrown and sometimes swung – distracted the eye, especially during Agathe’s Und ob die Wolke. 

At other times, the time spent perfecting slow motion movement whether powered independently or with a seemingly invisible wires really paid off, heightening the drama considerably. The conclusion to the Wolf’s Glen scene was a case in point when characters strained for Samiel’s fire only to fall back in the melee. So too when Agathe gets hit with the seventh bullet in the last scene – all very Keanu Reeves. Additionally, never has watching one dancer moving in slow motion accompanied by a cello solo on one note ever created so much tension. 

The use of dark light projected onto the stage created threatening shadows in the penultimate scene of Act 1 almost worked, although at times the movements didn’t quite tally up with the available ‘black space’ on stage. 

The use of figures projected onto gauze to create storytelling vignettes maintaining engagement during sequences of dramatic exposition, adding depth both to the storytelling and the perceived depth of the stage – a complex effect demanding continuity between pre-recorded and live performances. The depiction of a silvery sea complete with dry ice (or was it a hologram – I’m not quite sure) was a thing of directorial and design beauty. 

The best should really be left until last. The chorus provided a remarkable sound – a rich, sonorous and burnished colour that compensated for the grey uniformity in their near-totalitarian costumes. One other commentator have dismissed the chorus’ supposed lack of movement, though the simplicity of the lines complemented the stark stage design. There were some elegant movements in the final scene when Hermit and chorus moved in a collective slow motion. 

A concert performance of the production is staged at the Barbican on 4 November 2019.

Cast: Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Max), Johanni van Oostrum (Agatha), Chiara Skerath (Annchen), Vladimir Baykov (Kaspar), Christian Immler (Hermit), Thorsten Gruumbel (Kuno), Daniel Schumtzhard (Ottakar), Anas Seguin (Kilian), Clement Dazin (Samiel)

Recommended recording London Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus conducted by Colin Davis, featuring Christine Brewer, Sally Matthews and Simon O’Neil.

Reccomended Insula Orchestra recording Beethoven Emperor Concerto

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