Iain Bell’s score in the seemingly impossible adaptation of David Jones’ In Parenthesis is theatrical and vigorous while as a staged work the opera has transfixing visual moments that make for an impelling experience.
Most impressive is Bell’s choral composition which is sparkling and robust while several solos and duets are beautiful, especially the writing for the gloriously voiced American bel canto tenor Andrew Bidlack who sings the troubled Private John Ball as he and his fellow soldiers journey to the horrors of Mametz Wood.
Conducted with gravitas by Carlo Rizzi, the reflective prose poem that melds wartime experience with myth, legend, religion and history, has been moulded into a libretto by David Antrobus and Emma Jenkins. It is quite an achievement in transforming Jones’ l loquaciousness into accessible stage work.
Director David Pountney is at first uncharacteristically reserved, working with the flexible Robert Innes Hopkins’ sets that enable an easy flow. It all comes to life thanks to gorgeous lighting from Malcolm Rippeth. The approach is to tackle the lack of narrative in the poetry by creating a series of linked tableaux.
These include a rousing Sospan Fach in a café as the soldiers wait for the dreaded orders; the soldiers marching, bold yet petrified, led by the shepherd of the flock, Lieutenant Jenkins (George Humphreys) and a verbal duel between Dai Greatcoat (Donald Maxwell) and The Marne Sergeant (Graham Clark).
Joe Roche, Donald Maxwell and the WNO Male Chorus
Marcus Farnsworth as Lance Corporal Lewis and Marc Le Brocq as Sergeant Snell join these captivating singers in giving equally heart-warming performances.
I particularly loved a duet between Bidlack and Farnsworth that seemed to encapsulate the work, sitting reading together; two young men in another world from the horror they had been sacrificed to, betrayed by their Church and State. Similarly the singing of a German song similarly reminded us that this was clash of Empires not a war for any conceivable justifiable cause. How little times change.
While dramatically the lynchpin of the work, there is less vocal appeal in Peter Coleman-Wright and Alexandra Deshorties roles as the choric bards Britannia and Germania who, with their Chorus of Remembrance, begin and then narrate the “drama”.
George Humphreys and the Company
Pountney’s reserve slips as he joins the doomed youths in going over the top. Just as the work transfigures with The Queen of the Woods (also sung by Alexandra Deshorties) and her Dryads killing and gathering the dead, the staging becomes increasingly surreal.
Ultimately we have Jones’ vision of rebirth and regeneration with floral hats placed on each corpse as the opera soars into a cathartic religious conclusion. Oddly, although deeply impressed, I felt rather unmoved by the performance, perhaps because of the mystical Catholic redemption at the end rather than despair at the utter carnage. But that is the work and not the new libretto, music or staging. Was more moving was seeing the soldiers who were standing at the entrances to WMC in their regimental uniforms, taking off their bearskins and revealing they were just fresh-faced kids. Just like the kids sacrificed at the Somme in the name of a religion, monarchy and imperial/economic system that treated them like cattle.
I am not one for set-piece organised commemorations of one of the most disgusting episodes in human history just because of a date on a calendar. However, I did wonder how the Field installation of 900 plus bulbs on wobbly sticks would look when red in the darkness, rather than resembling an IKEA lighting department in daylight. But this curiosity was overtaken by wondering how nice it would have been if for once the men in suits speech makers could have restrained themselves from self back slapping when we are supposed to be remembering the dead. So I decided to honour their memory by going home for my own inner reflection prompted by David Jones’ work and this enthralling, psychologically intriguing, evocative work of music theatre.
WMC May 21 and June 3 then Birmingham and London.