Taking a play that has been performed with great success in recent years and making the bold decision not only to use the text as the basis of an opera but retain the Welsh language is indeed a bold decision.
Bold only in that we are not used to contemporary opera in Welsh and, in fact, it is still rather surprising that the amount of Welsh-language drama is relatively limited.
Then take the hesitation audiences often have with contemporary opera full stop and Music Theatre Wales’ collaboration with Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru deserves a medal.
What also deserves great praise is the resultant work from composer Guto Puw and librettist Gwyneth Glyn. It is powerful and poignant and grows better as the chamber opera progresses, as we follow Gwenlyn Parry’s narrative Y Tŵr which traces the stages through which a couple pass as they age.
I am not over familiar with the original Welsh-language play and cannot comment too much on how effective Gwyneth Glyn is taking the 1978 drama and transposing it into a sung opera. So I, like most audience members I assume, approach the opera in its own right.
The veracity of the language is where the strength of the collaboration between Theatr Gen and MTW will be most evident to Welsh-speaking audiences.
But then I am not fluent in several of opera’s most commonly used languages: Russian and Czech, for example. So language is in some ways irrelevant.
In its own right the libretto, sung by a splendid Caryl Hughes and Gwion Thomas – well known to Welsh opera audiences – was in turn fun and irreverent, angry and moving, dark and frankly depressing but also rich in humour and warmth.
Similarly Puw’s score flips and flows magnificently driving and reflecting the sung narrative, generous with the singers and imaginative for the small group of musicians, conducted by Richard Baker, creating diverse leitmotif for characters and situations, repeated themes through the work, such as capturing and being captured by a butterfly, passing trains, happy memories and times of anger and frustration.
But don’t expect a show packed with singalong melodies and you won’t come out whistling tunes.
My Welsh is not strong enough to understand the libretto without looking at the translations on two screens either stage of the stage and after the interval I found it easier to do this sitting further back in the auditorium, so I could watch the singers and scan the translation without playing tennis.
It also enables a clear view of Michael McCarthy direction and Samal Blak’s clever set design, where the movement up that tower (represented by an ever-present ladder, is achieved by peeling layers from the floor. The set is initially populated with a variety of props, around two dressing tables, at which the man and the woman apply their make-up, preen themselves, plan and prepare for the episodes in their lives, whether devotion or deception, delight or disappointment, dreams or decrepitude. Those props are used and discarded from the stage on stage until only the two tables and chairs (even the mirrors have been packed away) – plus a syringe.
I found the drama more effective as it progressed and it took a little while to feel totally comfortable with the characters as youngsters but felt more empathy with the couple reached the trials and tribulations of middle age and became totally engrossed.
This isn’t a laugh a minute show, nor one that searched out a happy ending, but it isn’t a slash your wrists marathon or morbidity. It is a charmingly acted and strongly sung opera, theatrically deftly crafted, richly textured through its minimalism and a thoughtful and thoughtful carpe diem piece of music theatre.
Michael McCarthy talks about Y Tŵr
Images: Clive Barda / Arena PAL