Marking both the centenary of the Battle of Mametz Wood, Wales’ blackest of innumerable black episodes of the Great War, and the opening of the WNO’s seventieth anniversary, the epic poem In Parenthesis has been adapted as an opera for this significant joint commemoration.
The artist and engraver David Jones was a veteran of Mametz, and wrote In Parenthesis from his own bitter experience. He summoned mythology, allusion and surrealism to both process and convey the horrific events and effects such barbarity this “war to end all wars” wrought on a whole generation.
A middle-aged couple represent Britannia and Germania, different sides of the same humanity coin, open the performance from behind lecterns. The dichotomous concerns of these Everyman parents – protective anxiety and pride towards those bearing arms for whichever Mother country – are themes revisited in this adaptation and in every war before and after. Then, representing the collective tongue, as would the chorus of ancient Greek theatre or the Japanese Noh, twenty women as the Chorus of Remembrance play a distinct character, an intercessor to frame the narrative. Throughout the performance, they weave through the various scenes, unseen by all except the main character Private Ball, who experiences them as spirit folk manifestations.
Ball, representing Jones himself, is richly performed by American tenor Andrew Bidlack through his outstandingly colourful bel canto voice. Ball is a young, clumsy man, far from ideal soldiering material – as could probably be said of all the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers sucked into this horrendous war. The narrative with chapter headings has been skilfully forged from Jones’ poetic freehand by librettists Emma Jenkins and David Antrobus. Ball and his Welch Fusiliers sail to France, spend six months going about soldiery businesses of drill and waiting, admiring the beauty of the French countryside, are bombarded and then fire on the enemy. They then join the Battle of the Somme and the crass misjudgement of the Mametz battle plan with the resulting obscene Welsh death count.
Iain Bell’s score well carries the gravitas of the subject with atonal, jarring episodes suggestive at times of Britten, and heart-swelling richness that supports without dominating the various Chorus of Remembrance themes that float on the air. Conducted by Carlo Rizzi, the score delivers superb sonority with grace and intensity.
With David Pountney’s graceful director’s hand, symbolism over realism was always going to be the way with the poem as source but the creative, adaptable staging and well used meteorological lighting, allows an array of scene changes with minimal disruption. The whole is the telling a myth, a heroic tale of man’s inhumanity to man and how Mother Earth takes every one of us back to her bosom in the end.
Belying the truth of the matter, the story of these dead dears did not move me to the level I had expected, even though we are all grasping increasingly more about the reality of this folly of a war as we mark in our own ways, the centuries of all four years through multiple media. This telling of In Parenthesis however, is a fine and respectful reminder of the debt we owe these poor souls with the song sung in relatively hushed tones.
WMC May 21, June 3 and then Birmingham and London
Also performed this season: