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Ensemble

A Bold Piece

Jonathan Dove's 'Swanhunter',
reviewed by PATRIC STANDFORD

 

This is a story about singing and the magical power of song to defeat obstacles and sustain the singer through adversity and challenge. As the composer Jonathan Dove suggests in his notes, for anyone -- and especially a child -- first hearing an opera singer at close quarters can be an overwhelming experience: 'the sound has such power'. It is this aspect of vocal power that is exploited in the new short opera [seen at the first performance at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, UK on 13 November 2009], aimed at an audience as much of children as adults. In this there would seem to be no space for the power of the lullaby, the gentle power of the voice to pacify or mitigate fears.

Andrew Rees as Lemminkäinen with Yvonne Howard as Lemminkäinen's mother in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton
Andrew Rees as Lemminkäinen with Yvonne Howard as Lemminkäinen's mother in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton

In interpreting the story of Lemminkäinen's tragic and unfulfilled search for a wife -- a small part of the great Finnish epic The Kalevala -- the power of song is given literal meaning, the decibel level consistently high, and the stress on the singers clearly evident.

Yvonne Howard as Lemminkäinen's mother in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton
Yvonne Howard as Lemminkäinen's mother in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton

Yet as a chamber opera it is an impressive experience. Andrew Rees is a commanding Lemminkäinen, boldly undergoing the set tasks until finally being torn to pieces in the Tuonela river. He is put together again in a powerful final solo by his mother, Yvonne Howard -- a more extended slow scene that Dove hopes will hold the attention of its young audience as an antidote to the preceding hour of excitement.

Elizabeth Cragg as the Swan in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton
Elizabeth Cragg as the Swan in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton

A further highlight is the startling performance of the Swan by Elizabeth Cragg, an aria that repeatedly descends from coloratura heights in yearning phrases and which could well stand isolated from its context in the opera. Elizabeth Cragg is one of the quartet that form the vigorous ensemble, providing a largely homophonic commentary, and most skilfully transforming themselves into the eight other characters. Frances Bourne is Louhi, Pohola's mistress and the mother of the maiden sought as a wife by Lemminkäinen.

The Ensemble: Elizabeth Cragg, Nicholas Sharratt, Graeme Broadbent and Frances Bourne in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton
The Ensemble: Elizabeth Cragg, Nicholas Sharratt, Graeme Broadbent and Frances Bourne in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton

Tenor Nicholas Sharratt and bass Graeme Broadbent play the parts of the threatening Dogs, Death and Death's son, and the Smith who is called to fashion the rake with which the pieces of Lemminkäinen are collected from the river to be reassembled -- a jolly detail that children should enjoy, if they aware it is happening, which may be doubtful.

Andrew Rees as Lemminkäinen with Graeme Broadbent (left) and Nicholas Sharratt (right) as dogs in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton
Andrew Rees as Lemminkäinen with Graeme Broadbent (left) and Nicholas Sharratt (right) as dogs in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton

It is a vivid magical story, accompanied with minimal proficiency by a group of six musicians, the core of which resembles quite intentionally a folk ensemble, violin, accordion, bass and drums, with an effectively used harp and a horn to symbolise all the heroics of the hunt and the hunted. The precision with which Dove's music has been invented and arranged to illustrate Alasdair Middleton's text is enviably striking -- they work well together as has already been proved by The Enchanted Pig and Pinocchio -- and the simple staging and slick costume changes of the ensemble make this a worthy and neatly manufactured entertainment.

Andrew Rees as Lemminkäinen (front) with Frances Bourne as Louhi (centre) and Graeme Broadbent (ensemble, back) in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton
Andrew Rees as Lemminkäinen (front) with Frances Bourne as Louhi (centre) and Graeme Broadbent (ensemble, back) in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton

The piece is conducted by Stuart Stratford and directed by Clare Whistler, with set and costume designs by Dody Nash. Whether a children's audience would fully grasp the significance of the proceedings will depend on how much explanation can be provided beforehand. Ancient Finnish legend has no high priority in our schools, and even for accustomed concert enthusiasts, Sibelius may only provide a limited familiarity.

Yvonne Howard as Lemminkäinen's mother with Elizabeth Cragg, Frances Bourne, Nicholas Sharratt and Graeme Broadbent in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton
Yvonne Howard as Lemminkäinen's mother with Elizabeth Cragg, Frances Bourne, Nicholas Sharratt and Graeme Broadbent in the Opera North production of 'Swanhunter' by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. Photo © 2009 Tristram Kenton

This is however a bold piece, for no artistic endeavour is worth much without some risk, and Opera North who have commissioned and presented the new piece are to be roundly congratulated for their efforts.

Copyright © 14 November 2009 Patric Standford,
Wakefield UK

-------

JONATHAN DOVE

OPERA NORTH

YVONNE HOWARD

NICHOLAS SHARRATT

LEEDS

UNITED KINGDOM

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