It was a night of celebration at the Sherman Theatre as Music Theatre Wales marked forty years of championing modern and comtemporary operas, and did so in the best possible fashion by staging a production of Violet, a new work born of the collaboration between writer Alice Birch and composer Tom Coult. Offering a number of intriguing insights into the opera in a pre-show talk, the latter described the lengthy gestation of this work, the back-and-forth between its authors, and the themes it wanted to explore – first and foremost the idea of time, and the kind of upheaval which might be cause in the (absurdist, yet terrifying) scenario of its gradual disappearance.
This, indeed, is the plot of Violet in a nutshell: in a peaceful and rather conservative village, in which things are done by the book and everyone has a fixed place in society, time starts slowly but inexorably vanishing, each new day losing one more hour. The night goes first, then the day, and with them also the peaceful order of life. Everyone is impacted by a disaster that cannot be averted, reacting in fear, anger, or resignation – everyone but Violet (played by the vividly expressive Anna Dennis), the wife of some kind of important village officer (the exact nature of his post is left deliberately vague; the imposing stage presence is provided by Richard Burkhard), who sees in this unravelling of all things an occasion to experience a freedom that has always been denied to her. The stark contrast between her reaction and the chaos surrounding her is the pivot around which the whole opera moves.
The deliberate removal of any suggestion that the process might be stopped or reversed forces both the writing and the audience to concentrate solely on the psychological side; the setting and styling also contribute to this effect, which is clearly sought by design. It might sound like somewhat of a bad pun to say that the setting of Violet is timeless; perhaps it is more correct anyway to say that it is placeless, a non-place which draws suggestions from a number of societal cues (the costumes have something of Renaissance in a Puritan country, but there is much mention made of several trappings of contemporary society and suburban life). In this Violet taps into the traditions of absurdist theatre, and does this to great effect, the slightly surreal mood enfolding the whole play serving to augment the sense of dread that stems for it and at the same time to extract the occasional wry laugh from the audience. There is a lot to chew on in the psychological exploration this opera offers, and some parts of it might even come across as unpalatable. Most powerful of all, perhaps, is the underlying, inescapable conclusion one must come to when addressing the reasons for Violet’s apparently nonsensical behaviour. Violet is, after all, someone who all her life has been oppressed, forced and pigeonholed into a role she finds depressing and frustrating by the conventions and concerns of society. In light of her complete lack of agency, the total collapse of that same society is still preferable to her to the conditions she has experienced up to that point – at the very list it carries with it a modicum of freedom, as nothing truly matters anymore. The representatives of the established authority and the bearers of societal prestige may panic and weep, but to the person whose agency has always been denied, collapse is liberation rather than doom.
Given the prominence of this rather revolutionary concept in the storytelling, it would be easy to try to shoehorn into an interpretation of Violet any number of contemporary issues, from feminism to climate change, to perhaps even the recent lockdowns (the moment in which Violet’s husband Felix tells her that she must be indoors at all times because it’s the only way she’ll be safe certainly summoned a specific memory), but I would argue all such interpretations would be spurious, or rather accidental: the opera addresses, at its core, the way in which the structures (and the strictures) of society limit the experience of life for those who have no power within them, and this will of course have innumerable reflections in all sorts of matters which are prominent in our collective awareness. The authors are clearly aware of this too, as the surprising twist-ending of the opera also seems to suggest.
Opera is of course also a narrative in music, and Coult’s music is ever a tangible presence here, drawing inspiration from the broadest possible range of sounds a clock might make, ticking, tapping, ringing, but never stopping – conveying the inevitability of the plot’s cavalcade towards its own undoing.
Contemporary opera is a difficult thing; it has many pitfalls, and is always faced with the difficult challenge of drawing something new and relevant from an art form which was originally created for very different purposes. Violet does all this with a delightful ease, a clever nod to its many theatrical and musical predecessors, and a keen eye on the future. It is fair to say that the long work behind this production has certainly born its fruit.
Main image: Richard Burkhard,Frances Gregory and Anna Dennis
Photo: Marc Brenner.