Saturday, 16 November 2013

Into Zeus's storm: The Invited at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden

Roger Thomas writes :

London is blessed with several small independent
opera companies that give an opportunity for
talented young singers to take on substantial leading roles rather than having their skills confined to the choruses of the big houses. This Opera Room Productions/Iris Theatre production at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden (the Actors' Church) was a good example of the genre.

The Invited (music by Richard Knight, libretto by Norman Welch) is set in 1916 in an upper middle class household in rural Suffolk that has been shrivelled by the vagaries of the First World War to the two daughters of the house; their mother is away undergoing treatment for consumption, their doctor father is serving on the Western Front and the servants have left.

The performance opened dramatically: with the sisters on stage – early morning, with Violet (Sarah Minns) still in bed and Emily (Emma Häll) at a table – the nine-piece orchestra, dressed in a fair approximation of WW1 army uniforms, processed down the church aisle playing a martial theme. But the coup de théâtre's effect was dissipated when they settled down and tuned up. What a waste! Effectively the performance had to begin again.

At the opera's core is a dialogue between the two sisters induced by the catastrophic losses of the war: “rational” Emily seeks comfort from the natural world; Violet, increasingly deranged, seeks a solution in a return of the ancient Greek gods, convinced that in a coming storm Zeus will impregnate her with a new saviour who will cure the world of its ills. Emily proves powerless to dissuade her sister. A third element driving the action is a washerwoman from the village, Mrs Galloway (Miriam Sharrad), whose prying curiosity fuelled by village rumours about the sisters' unorthodox behaviour leads her to spy on their close physical intimacy. Eventually Mrs Galloway reveals that her soldier son has been killed in action, and produces a letter ostensibly indicating that one of the sisters – Violet, it turns out – is pregnant by her son and had promised to marry him.

Violet strenuously denies all this, despite demands from her sister and Mrs Galloway that she tell the truth. Having threatened Mrs Galloway with a knife, she eventually stabs herself. As she dies, her sister, grief-stricken, expels the washerwoman from the house, and moves off the stage down the aisle, into the coming storm, singing that she will offer herself to Zeus in her sister's place.

Minns gave a stunning performance as Violet, acting the deranged and deluded young woman with scary conviction as she pointed heavenwards and stared fixedly forward, at one point moving trance-like down the aisle into the audience. Her singing was powerful and moving. All praise here also to the director (Neil Smith) for tapping Minns's undoubted movement skills (she has dance training as well as established singing credentials) and talent for characterisation. Minns might not have the coloratura to cope with the crazed Lucia di Lammermoor, but on this showing she could beat any singer in acting that part. Häll sang strongly and convincingly as Violet's concerned and loyally loving sister, although her diction was problematic from time to time – a hindrance when so much
depended on what was said in a dense libretto. Sharrad caught effectively the unhealthy mix of busybody and bereaved mother in Mrs Galloway.

The string, wind, horn, percussion orchestra played extremely well, actively and skilfully directed from the piano by Elspeth Wilkes, so it seemed a pity that the music was so heavily scored – relentlessly tutti and seemingly at times in competition with the singers rather than supportive of them and the story line. With such skills available, it might have been more appropriate to the action had there been more lyrical passages using single instruments or groups of instruments.

Yuji Suzuki produced a simple but effective stage design – I particularly liked Violet's bier-like bed with blood-red cover – and Ciaran Cunningham's lighting design and Ned Welch's sound got the approaching storm just right.

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