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A Remarkable Achievement

Stephen Barlow's cathedral opera 'King',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


Community opera is a tricky form, usually it conjures up hordes of locals and school-children mixed with professionals to sometimes variable results. But when the community involved is Canterbury Cathedral, you know that you are going to be in for something remarkable.

The opera, King, seen on Saturday 29 April 2006, examines the relationship between King Henry II and Thomas Beckett, the narrative being made all the more poignant by taking place in the building where Beckett was murdered. The text of the opera was written by performance poet Philip Wells and evidently, before writing the text, he had spent a whole night locked in to the Cathedral in order to experience the special atmosphere of the place. The music was by Stephen Barlow who also conducted. Barlow is perhaps better known as a conductor, but he has a long track record of writing music and has recently had a CD issued of a work for narrator and orchestra.

The performers consisted of Wells himself in a speaking role, the Listener, a group of opera singers playing the main roles, the choir of Canterbury Cathedral plus a group of schoolchildren. These latter were, it must be admitted, quite remarkable. Just six of them, they delivered spoken lines commenting on the action. The texts had been written by the children themselves as part of a year long series of workshops with Kent schools. They were remarkably apposite and delivered with remarkably clarity. Even for someone as intolerant as your reviewer, their comments were sometimes affecting.

This spoken contribution by children and by Philip Wells had a big effect on the final form of the piece. Wells and Barlow seem to have chosen the pageant as the work's main form. A series of set piece scenes interlinked with spoken text and melodrama. There were certainly moments when I felt that the spoken sections interrupted the action and prevented the singers and the composer from developing their characters. The most successful was Philip Joll as Beckett; Joll projected Beckett's intolerant idealism brilliantly. But even here he was limited -- the more prickly aspects of Beckett's character were consigned to one of Wells's narrations.

Canterbury and the cathedral. Photo © Keith Bramich
Canterbury and the cathedral. Photo © Keith Bramich

As Henry II, Robert Burt worked hard to show the strong ties of friendship which existed between Henry and Beckett, but I don't think that we really ever appreciated the sheer power of Henry the king. Wells and Barlow made some eccentric choices of scene. Having Henry have an in-growing toe nail attended to whilst discussing the problem of Beckett might have seemed metaphorical on paper, but in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral it only came over as odd.

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Copyright © 2 May 2006 Robert Hugill, London UK


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