<< -- 2 -- Robert Hugill A REMARKABLE ACHIEVEMENT
Playing the opera within the Cathedral was both a boon and a bane. Inevitably, the Cathedral became a player in the action and Barlow cleverly included a number of expressive orchestral interludes which allowed the Cathedral to speak. But against this must be stacked the terrible effect of the Cathedral acoustics. Even sitting near the front (in the 7th row), the singers had a terrible time projecting words. Initially it was possible to read the libretto by the light of the setting sun but as the evening developed this was not possible and there were certain scenes where sung narrative detail just went out of the window. This would not have mattered in a conventional opera where we saw the characters go on a journey. But here, where we saw just snapshots of that journey, the sung text should have been more comprehensible. As it was, this put an even greater emphasis on Wells's spoken narrations.
Kate Ladnor, though far too young for the historical Eleanor, made a good effect in her major scene as Queen Eleanor, though I was not convinced that it was a good idea to devote much of her dialogue with Beckett to a discussion about whether or not he still heard the voice of his mother. (He did, and so did we, as an off-stage voice.)
Nicholas Folwell played the only other major character to be developed, Foliot, Bishop of London, whose role was to play a foil to Henry when Beckett was not in favour. Clarissa Meek had a woefully small role as a lady in waiting. Richard Coxon, Timothy Evans-Jones, Douglas Bowen and Nicholas Todorvic played both bishops and the knights who eventually killed Beckett.
And what of the music? Barlow writes fluent expressive instrumental music. His small ensemble (fourteen musicians, including a tabla player) filled the nave with sounds and never sounded undernourished, quite the opposite in fact. Barlow's music for the instrumental ensemble provided some of the highlights of the evening, expressive and moving, never written down to the audience; his music is interesting, spiky and not always tonal. Unfortunately I felt that his writing for voices was not as expressive and as natural as it could have been. Perhaps the difficulty with conveying the words laid more emphasis on the shape of the vocal lines and highlighted awkwardnesses which would have been less apparent in a theatre.
Though some last-minute work seems to have been done on the form of the piece (as performed, there were differences to the printed libretto), I felt that more pruning could have been done. A number of the musical scenes felt just too long as if having got hold of a good idea, Barlow was reluctant to get rid of it. The final scene, for the four knights just before they kill Beckett, was a wonderfully effective coup, but it never really developed and could have been shorter. Similarly the striking spoken ensemble where the bishops and barons articulate their dislike of Beckett using just spoken rhythms was a remarkable tour-de-force which lasted a little too long.
Copyright © 2 May 2006
Robert Hugill, London UK