Under Milk Wood Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
Words: Dylan Thomas
Music: John Metcalf
Co-production by Taliesin Arts Centre, le Chien qui chante (Quebec) and Companion Star (New York), in association with Welsh National Opera.
Reviewer; Barbara Michaels
Re-imagined and set to music by Wales’ leading opera composer John Metcalf, the words and imagery of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood are given a new slant in this presentation by Taliesin Arts Centre, staged as part of the Dylan Thomas 100 festival. Given Metcalf’s sensitive handling of the poet’s ‘Play for Voices,’ and a talented thirteen-strong company of singers and multi-instrumentalists, it can hardly fail. Together with director and producer Keith Turnbull, Metcalf has succeeded in translating Thomas’s mythical village of Llareggub with its gloriously eccentric residents into the format of opera. Not grand opera, to be sure, but rather the melding together of the different genres of poetry and music, requiring in addition considerable acting skills – quite a tall order.
Not surprisingly, in the centenary year, there are many productions of the famous poem, originally written for radio back in 1954, going the rounds. This one is unique, being the only operatic presentation ever – a world premiere, no less. With visuals used as backdrops and a realistic sound track producing the sound of waves crashing onto the beach, it succeeds to a remarkable degree. For those – and at a guess this applies to many of the audience – familiar with the text, it adds a valuable dimension to the whole.
However, there is a caveat. The overture, in the form of a musical introduction before the performance gets going, is overlong when balanced against the overall length of the piece. Also, the music is at times overloud, drowning out the voices and thus inevitably causing some members of the audience to, as it were, lose the plot – not to mention Thomas’s wonderful language, of which every word is to be treasured.
Fortunately, this rights itself and, as the singers settle into their parts – parts plural, for each one takes on the mantle of different persona – one begins to realise what a treat, and a rare one at that, this is. Centre stage, bass/baritone Michael Douglas Jones gives a sympathetic portrayal of the narrator blind old Captain Cat, ably backed by baritone Richard Morris who shines as Mr Waldo as well as in a number of other roles. Soprano Elizabeth Donovan is a wistful tart-with-a-heart Polly Garter who tugs at our heartstrings, while Helen-Jane Howard shows considerable acting ability along with a melodic soprano voice as Goassamer Beynon and other parts. Nice comedic touch from Gweneth-Ann Jeffers in the role of Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, Mrs Organ-Morgan etc.
Considerable musical ability from harpist Deian Rowlands and some excellent viola playing by Parmela Attariwala.
All in all, a remarkable take on the best known work of the iconic Welsh poet.
Bearded adolescents in plaid shirts, sopranos disguised in mascot-esque cat costumes and a pre-recorded, omnipresent, convincingly American Stephen Fry are what to expect of the Welsh National Youth Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan, currently at the Wales Millennium Centre. The sprightly, young cast of what seemed like eighty-odd certainly injected some youthful joie de vivre into this operetta – if I can call it that – yet the dated humour and disjointed plot left the audience slightly bemused.
Britten and Auden collaborated on Paul Bunyan when they relocated to America in the 1940s due to their mutual pacifistic views. Inspired by the consumer capitalism that swamped America during this time, they went on to write this satirical, sardonic take on the American Dream using the eponymous folkloric character – a giant lumberjack called Paul Bunyan. Auden (of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame) targets plenty of minorities in his charmingly witty libretto – namely, the Swedish, whom he depicts as dithering idiots with names like Andy Anderson and Hel Helson. It’s odd that he didn’t compose their lines as simply, ‘hurdy-gurdy-purdy’. Come to think of it, this mirrors another nonchalantly racist comment in another of Britten’s operas: Billy Budd. In Billy Budd, one of the ship’s staff proclaims that he doesn’t like the French ‘with their hoppity-skippity ways’. So… That was a bit naughty, wasn’t it, Benjamin?
What Paul Bunyan lacks in plot and sense is made up for with the exceptional talent of the company. Elgan Llyr Thomas makes an impeccable Jonny Inkslinger; the independent wannabe novelist who arrives at Paul Bunyan’s logging camp in search of food. Ross Scanlon and Vanessa Bowers are clear rising talents vocally and the quintet of mentally-deficient Swedes is suitably amusing. The entire ensemble’s enthusiasm is worthy of admiration and Only Boys Aloud’s soaring voices pack some oomph into a previously oomph-less operetta.
Director Martin Constantine has tried his utmost to update the relevance of Paul Bunyan with the addition of a young boy watching the entire show on television in his bedroom. He is essentially being sold the American Dream through advertising and this political undertone the operetta now holds is especially profound today. A notable moment in the production is when Paul announces he is to leave and the entire company enters in what looks like army uniforms, making a thought-provoking statement on the effects of mass consumerism on our minds.
Structurally, it’s messy. Sudden arguments are littered hither and thither and a romantic interest is established without even so much as a solo aria proclaiming it. This is more the fault of Auden and Britten than anything else. When the operetta first opened, it was subjected to a tourbillion of vitriolic reviews. The music isn’t at all moving nor is it memorable which, I admit, isn’t peculiar for Britten (ooh, what am I like?!). However, if one were to look at it as a piece of intermittently humorous light entertainment with a modest political message at its heart, Paul Bunyan is worth seeing for the promising talent of our up-and-coming opera stars.
Paul Bunyan will be at the Wales Millenium Centre on 23rd and 24th August.
A complex, challenging piece for an opera novice…
Despite attending the pre-performance talk, expertly given by the Nick John trainee, Sophie Rashbrook, in which she emphasised the unusual usage of electronic sounds and the uniqueness of this 90 minute opera, I still took my seat expecting to hear fine, fluid melodies and to feel moved by the storyline or, at least, the plight of the characters.
Jonathan Harvey’s composition of electronic effects within jarring phrases did, initially, disappoint me. This style of composition seems to lend itself to performances that are decidedly different and apparently “contemporary”. Clever though it undoubtedly is, the aggressive, adverse nature of the music in the early section of Wagner Dream did nothing but put me on edge, and I found myself focussing more on that than on the voices and the action on stage, which were in turn excellent and interesting.
There are two stories being told in Wagner Dream – that of Wagner’s last moments in life, and a Buddhist parable that he apparently intended to turn into an opera: a story about a young, female ‘untouchable’, Pakati (Claire Booth) who falls in love with a Buddhist monk, Ananda (Robin Tritschler).
The themes of desire explored in the parable are touched upon in Wagner’s reality: the love of his strong, devoted wife Cosima is not enough for him, and the young Carrie Pringle, whom he is obviously having an affair with, arrives on stage at the same time as the goddess Vajrayogini.
These two stories are set apart in style, with the reality played out in stark dark colours, the action spoken in hard German. In contrast the parable, which exists in Wagner’s ‘limbo’, is infused with bold, warm colours and told through song, and the gentle language Pali.
The contrast between the reality and limbo is also made with the music; Wagner’s world is dark, harsh and staccato, whilst Pakati’s story is accompanied with warmer, melodic sounds, which I found much easier to digest.
Though I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, it was certainly thought provoking and an interesting experience. The cast and creative team must be commended, particularly Conductor Nicholas Collon and his orchestra, for whom the music and inclusion of such diverse electrification of sounds must have been a challenge.
If you’d like to see Wagner Dream and you don’t have tickets for tonight’s performance at WMC, you can catch it in Birmingham’s Hippodrome on 12th June.