OK, so several people have beat me to the ‘yearning for Iernin‘ pun, so something more prosaic had to be drafted in for my reflections on Surrey Opera’s performance of George Lloyd’s 1934 opera. Once again, as with their Thelma last year, this thoughtful company have bravely ventured into relatively unknown repertory and done it proud.
Last year, the company performed at the Fairfield Halls (the Ashcroft Theatre, to be precise). This year, they were (apparently) priced out of the venue and moved to the Mitre Theatre, Trinity School, on the way to Shirley (so I overheard someone connected with the company saying). Slightly tricky to get to (except for those of us living down the road), but an attractive auditorium, excellent acoustic and comfortable (non-squeaky!) seating were all compensations. It’s surprising how the sound of a bell in a school corridor can still trigger deeply-buried emotions, even when it’s now calling you back for the second half of an opera, and even if the £13,000-a-year Trinity School is some way away from my northern pit-village comprehensive. Anyway, it is worth the management of Fairfield Halls reflecting on the fact that this did not take place at their venue: if they are intent on claiming a position as Croydon’s cultural centrepiece (which is the rather ridiculous justification for flogging off some of Croydon’s valuables) then it needs not to be pricing out organisations like Surrey Opera, but going all out to nurture them and ensure that they feature as a mainstay of the cultural offer. The cheap touring shows, dubious comedy and Sunday worship can then be the rather sour-tasting icing on the Fairfield cake.
And so, back to Iernin. Finding an act-by-act synopsis of Lloyd’s opera is a bit of an endeavour, so the programme was definitely useful. Cornwall is our location, the Nine Maidens to be exact. The story picks up on the legend that these stones are nine faeries who were petrified by the local bishop as punishment for their tendency to lure local men into good times. (Never the men’s fault, of course…) Anyway, one of them comes back to life, only to find (with echoes of Rusalka) that acceptance into a life among the mortals is not forthcoming. She falls in love with, and enchants in return, a local bigwig who is about to marry the King’s daughter, but is eventually chased back up to the stones into which she returns.
The production by Alexander Hargreaves was an updating, to roughly the period of the composition of the work. With relatively simple, but effective, stage pictures by designer Ellan Parry, it was atmospherically lit by Alan Bishop. Alongside a fairly straightforward and clear telling of the narrative, the production was concerned with the uncertainties that abounded in its pre-war period, and the rise of hate-filled crowds who would exclude, demonise – and worse – those that were not ‘of them’.
Picking up on George Lloyd’s traumatic experience of war, the Act 3 close (after Iernin’s re-petrification) sees World War II soldiers appear over the back of the set, and the would-be Prince, Gerent, take up the position of their leader. For me, this intervention didn’t quite flow smoothly from what had gone before, but the replacement of the stone Iernin with a war memorial, complete with its list of the dead, very quickly established an effective and moving set piece, accompanying the opera’s concluding paean for a better world.
Under the direction of Jonathan Butcher, the 30-odd strong orchestra gave a warm and confident reading of Lloyd’s symphonic score: thickly textured, but delivered with a pleasing clarity. By the end of the first half (up to Act 2 scene 1) I was struck by how symphonic it felt, a very organic musical development, but which didn’t quite set the drama in motion. After the interval, however, things really picked up. Chorus, orchestra and soloists came together to deliver a confrontation scene between Iernin, Gerent and the chorus of hate-filled villagers that was reminiscent of Peter Grimes, tinged with echoes of the crowd’s threatening descent into violence in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The spoken interjections, still accompanied by the orchestra, that established the crowd in festive but gossipy mood before Iernin’s arrival, were a tremendously effective touch. The libretto, by Lloyd’s father, was tinged with a rather Victorian hue – quite a few thou’s and thy’s – but was well put across, aided by surtitles to the side of the stage (though they could do with someone taking an editorial eye to them).
All of the soloists did the work proud, though the relatively even level of the orchestra and stage (there was no sunken pit) meant some of them battled against the passages in which larger forces were deployed. The Gerent of Edward Hughes grew in vocal presence as the evening went on, and he was appropriately urgent in the last duet with Iernin. As Bedwyr, the King, James Harrison had been unable to sing earlier in the run, and whilst there were the evident remnants of a cold or similar, he nonetheless stayed the course with admirable power. As Gerent’s ruthless friend, Edyrn, Håkan Vramsmo returned to the company after his performances in Thelma last year with an imposingly full baritone voice. Felicity Buckland was the Princess, Cunaide, to whom Gerent was pledged, and beautifully conveyed a stoic resolve in the face of her changing fortunes. Other contributions were effectively made by Jon Openshaw (Priest), James Schouten (Huntsman), Robert Trainer (Saxon Thane), Tim Baldwin (Old Man), and Georgina Perry (Little Girl).
Crowning the cast was the impassioned, vivid and febrile Iernin of Catharine Rogers: a gorgeously fulsome voice, and an unstinting dramatic energy. She fully anchored the performance, and was commanding in her longer monologues: beautifully conveying the thrill of being returned to life, and the tragic terror of being faced with a return to stone.
An excellent evening spent discovering an unknown opera. And in Croydon: I could get used to this.