Saturday, 26 October 2013

Iernin, Surrey Opera

This is the 100th anniversary year of composer George Lloyd. A precocious British composer, Lloyd's career in music was truncated by a violent experience in the navy during the second world war - and a no less considerable if very different reaction to modernism, and specifically serialism, in music. This year's BBC Proms celebrated his anniversary with a pair of works from his later (post 1973) Indian summer of composition. His opera Iernin which Surrey Opera have produced in London (and will shortly take to Lloyd's home of Cornwall) is from the early flush of writing music. The opera sets a libretto by Lloyd's bel canto-loving father and concerns a local myth about the standing stones of St Columb Major, supposedly women under a spell. One of the stones, Iernin, is brought back to life and - probably metaphorically (!) - bewitches a prince on the eve of his wedding.

Surrey Opera have done a handsome job in bringing this little-known opera (despite a warm premiere reception in 1934) to life. This is a fully-staged production with a 30-strong pit orchestra under Jonathan Butcher, the chief advocate of the work and responsible for the judicious balancing act of making cuts for the evening's drama whilst letting us hear the score. Still a teenager, George Lloyd's style is a difficult to pin down, though there is more of the Wagnerian tradition of expansiveness and programmatic detail in the orchestration than that of the vocal formality of Verdi. Neither does the obvious bucolicism of Vaughan-Williams weigh the score down, despite some appropriate modalism. This is original music which swirls about us like the climate that is referenced at moments in the plot and builds to regular totemic moments that reflect the old rock face of the coast.

Lloyd is never understated in anything he says and, singing the title role, Catharine Rogers undertakes a considerable workload. Hers is a noteworthy performance by any standard, paced to take her right through to the Liebestodesque conclusion but which also incoporates light passages that reflect her delight in de-petrification, fear of the locals and love at first sight. Her sound is helped by the Mitre Theatre (at Trinity School, Croydon), a long wooden box, not dissimilar to the Mermaid Theatre, London. In alt Rogers voices shines with metallic spark and the words are unstintingly clear.

The rest of the cast bring a strong, diverse palette of colours in around her. Ed Hughes gets a bit of a raw deal as the prince Gerent but makes the most of his moments; as his jilted bride Cunaide, Felicity Buckland makes the most of the final Act peroration, proving persausive not only on stage but in fact. I'm trying no to make too many Tristan-und-Isolde-isms here but HÃ¥kan Vramsmo's handsomely sung Edyrn is what you might expect Melot to be in a Tristan-prequel. The evening's 'King Marke', Bedwyr, was graciously walked by an indisposed James Harrison whilst Jon Openshaw more than competently warmed up for his later cameo as the Priest by singing the king from the side.

However, the opera really came alive when the chorus were on stage in ensemble. The company were really excellent, coherent, well-tuned and bringing not only finesse but crucially, credibility to the staging with which Alexander Hargreaves has used to plot a course through the work. With proper attention to the costume, set and lighting design, nothing had been subordinated to what one must assume is the inevitable cash constraint - as one who has performed with the company previously, I can attest to a not-to-be-sniffed-at slush fund of goodwill from friends and performers alike. A worthy exercise for this anniversary year and one that (one hopes) will be welcomed at its homecoming performances next week.

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