Music by Ian Wilson
Libretto by Lavinia Greenlaw
Opera Theatre Company; cond. David Brophy; dir. Gavin Quinn
10 September 2003, Samuel Beckett Theatre, TCD
The story and music of this opera were very united, in how they developed, and in terms of their strengths and weaknesses.
The story centres on the town of Hamelin, a real place in northern Germany, where legend has it that in the thirteenth century a piper appeared and caused the disappearance of sundry rats and 130 children. Many versions tell of a crippled girl who was reluctantly left behind. This opera presents three characters, the town Mayor, the Doctor, and the girl. The libretto explores through them the whole question of how tragic events are made to change as they migrate in culture, from reality, through reportage, and finally to fiction or legend. By extension it is a very relevant subject for any time, our own included, on how terrible events are ‘spun’ to suit the prevailing agenda.
In the course of the opera we are skilfully made aware that the disappearances occurred around the same time as the town was enduring both famine and pestilence. Because of the scarcity of food, many were eating bread made from rye infected with ergot, causing hallucinations and strange behaviour.
The narrative thread concerns the changing relationships of the girl with the men: they treat her first as an inconvenience, then a skivvy, a seducee, and finally an essential part of the town’s preferred version of their story. However, because this necessitates constant recasting and to an extent retelling of the legend, we have to receive a lot of almost-narration and not so much live portrayal of action. In a straight play that would be pretty fatal, and it does not seem advisable in an opera. Given the real subject here, which is most certainly not the appearance of the piper nor his evil deed, a sense of an absent drama that might have been hangs over everything. Into the fabric of their shifting relationships is woven speculation on what really happened, which parts were ergot-induced fantasy (the rats? The piper?), and what was real. We are invited to fear the worst regarding hunger and the disappearance of young children! While that is never resolved definitely one way or the other, evil, of a lesser order, wins the day when the protagonists resolve in agreeing to bend whatever truth they knew (itself vague) into a cleaner, simpler and exploitable version for retelling.
What is remarkable about the music is how it mirrors and supports that whole process in form and style, while remaining very unified overall. It moves from an initial state of ‘musical prose’ gradually, over 84 minutes, towards musical rhyme, where antecedent phrases have metrically matching consequents (the text rhymes all the way through, but we scarcely notice until the music does so too). There are some parody styles at important points along the way, but all of this is very finely knitted in to a single sound-world. That sound-world is of an atonal nature, inclusive of flirtations with tonality, and the almost-tonal sounds are unfolded more and more as the piece moves to its resolution. Harsh reality in the story goes with musical prose and extreme dissonance, fictive spin goes with quasi-tonal sound and musical rhyme. Also, from the start, the girl is more associated with the prosaic and realistic style, while the others are associated with the rhyming style, and as they gradually brainwash her into their way of thinking she adopts parody, then later their rhyme/almost-tonal sound. That may all sound rather technical, but it shows in a broad way how Ian Wilson is overseeing his materials and successfully unrolling a single unifying process.
My main criticisms of the music would be that the least user-friendly aspects of this process dominated the first act: lots of prosaic monologue from the girl, nearly always moving along in a moderate tempo. The result, in spite of some sparkling use of the seven instruments, was hard going for the listener. Anywhere that two or three of the singers overlapped, either with different words and melodies, or in parallel on the same text, the musical interest rose.
In the second act, the textures and tempos vary more, and ensemble singing becomes more frequent, just as the machinations of plot increase. The music becomes more and more accessible. While the self-reference in the plot created for the audience a problematic distancing, paradoxically the use of repetitions of actual lines was often humorous and musically satisfying.
While the first act was too dry in effect, this is not automatically the fault of the composer: I found that I could listen to large amounts of John Milne’s fine bass voice because it always had so much colour, whether high, low or in between. Natalie Raybould, while extremely polished in terms of mastery of the notes and text (she had an alarmingly difficult monologue in the first ten minutes of the piece) just didn’t have quite that quality of tonal interest. Eugene Ginty, playing the Mayor, matched the others for control (in an extremely difficult score), but again didn’t really bring extra beauty to the piece. My pleasure in the voices was in inverse proportion to the amount of vibrato. Also, in the first act a fine gauze sheet hung between stage and audience. It was drawn back at some stage, and the words became easier to hear. It is just possible that the sounds were dulled by it.
The staging and production had many successful ingredients, plenty of novel props, etc. (in particular, imaginative use of an overhead projector), but they did not all gel or get behind the story. For those that did, the presence of a large metal revolving door was a (literally!) rather heavy way to refer to aspects of the theme; here obstruction, there the circularity of the discussion. Costumes and props were very freely anachronistic: suggesting perhaps that the theme applies to our time as much as any.
The OTC Ensemble was led with assurance by conductor David Brophy.
Published on 1 November 2003
John McLachlan is a composer and Executive Director of the Association of Irish Composers. He is a member of Aosdána. www.johnmclachlan.info