The Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Welsh National Opera is a visionary. Any intendant of an opera company has to tread a very fine line between being an idealist and an astute businessman. Since taking on his role at WNO, hot-foot from Bregenz, a major opera festival with an opera house attached, David Pountney has presented the British premieres of nine operas. I’d like you to stop and think about that for a moment: not nine new productions, allowing all the critics to mutter about Regietheater or which of the current crop of Russian sopranos is having an off day, but nine opportunities to talk about the fusion of music and drama and how it relates to human existence. As Mr Pountney says in his introduction to this second WNO residency at the Royal Opera House, “Don’t exploit the past without feeding the future.”
Having been involved in the export of Richard Ayres’ previous opera, The Cricket Recovers to Bregenz, when it formed part of Mr Pountney’s “Made in Britain” mini-festival, I was keen to hear how Mr Ayres would treat J M Barrie’s iconic fable of the boy who never grew up. The Cricket Recovers is a work which can appeal on different levels to both children and adults, making Mr Ayres a logical choice to write something which needs to appeal to the core opera audience, but can also draw in those longed-for audiences of the future, well before they become fearful of new music or scary German opera directors. Last night I was surrounded by highly-attentive children aged between 8-12, including one who virtually sobbed on learning that Tinkerbell was “broken.” It was wonderful to see a shift in the Royal Opera House opera demographic for two nights at least. Although Cricket in fact depicts an array of psychological disorders – depression, obsession et al – Mr Ayres created in his first opera an intimate, magical world peopled by fantastical animals, each identified by its own leitmotiv or particular musical gesture, set against an eclectic backdrop of musical styles and moods.
Cricket is small and perfectly formed, played out in a self-reflective cocoon; Peter Pan is an opera for a larger house, scored for larger forces (predominantly percussion and strings) and for a significantly larger cast. And yet Keith Warner’s ‘toybox’ production encloses all the frenetic activity of part two in a limited, claustrophobic space, allowing the protagonists little room to move and no space to think. Ultimately all the toys, including the toy blocks, are put back in the box. The children, having tasted freedom in a mad dash through Neverland, return to the familiar constraints of life at home.
Lavinia Greenlaw is a seasoned writer of sinister yet effective operas for children. However, in my opinion, there is an imbalance in Peter Pan between the two sections of the opera and I have to lay most of the blame for this at the feet of Miss Greenlaw. There has to be a very good reason why three children who are offered an alternative existence in which they can fly (and yes, in this production, they really fly,) hunt, fight battles with pirates and see the bad guy get eaten by a crocodile would want to return home. We get an excellent depiction in the “overture” of some of the stresses inherent in Victorian middle-class life, thanks to the effective stage device of a circular train track, giving us pictures of commuting, office drudgery, even lost babies, all in pantomime form. At home however, apart from the fact that a nightly dose of medicine is compulsory, it seems as if the children are very much in control, having a great time playing practical jokes and generally running riot. If Mrs Darling is prepared to entrust the upbringing of her children in the paws of a Newfoundland dog, why is she so bereft when they disappear from their room?
The biggest problem for me is that the character of Mrs Darling in particular and that of the principals in general is not sufficiently fleshed out. The dramatist needs to establish the roles of gruff, disciplining father and loving, forgiving mother to make this home preferable to a life on the high seas. We need to know what a mother should be in order to understand why the Lost Boys adopt Wendy as theirs. Without this, in this reading, in order to make the final reconciliation credible, Neverland has to become a pretty threatening place and Peter Pan a pretty petulant, unpleasant character.
Unlike in Cricket, with the exception of an animated (created by atticus) Tinkerbell who is depicted by two piccolos, a glockenspiel and an accordion, the characters are not assigned their own music. Also, any lyrical passages are few and far between. They do say the devil gets all the best tunes: Mr Darling and his alter-ego, Captain Hook (both played with customary gusto by Ashley Holland) gets two stonking “arias.” The very wishy-washy Mrs Darling (Hilary Summers) has a wonderful moment in the spotlight as her alter-ego, Tiger Lily, with feathers, fringes, a garter (costumers designed by Nicky Shaw) and some convincing stage business with a dagger. These are brief cameos amidst the frenetic action and yet they are meaningful, showing the adult audience that Mr Darling/Captain Hook doesn’t want to always be the baddie and Mrs Darling fantasizes about an exciting life, free from the shackles of marriage and motherhood. Being briefly sad in the prologue just isn’t enough.
The secondary principals – Tootles (Simon Crosby Buttle,) Slightly (Martin Lloyd,) Curly (Laurence Cole,) Nibs (Joe Roche,) Smallest Boy (Fiona Harrison-Wolfe) and Smee (Mark Le Brocq) were virtually impossible to differentiate, as was Aidan Smith when he was playing Starkey as opposed to Nana, the dog – who stole the hearts of adults and children alike with his “Wuff, wuff, nice” and other pithy lines. What we got instead of boldly drawn characters was some of the superb ensemble work I have come to expect from the chorus of Welsh National Opera.
By contrast with the decidedly jolly pirates, the Lost Boys were a pretty fearsome crew, very William Golding in their bloodthirsty battle cries. They quickly imprint on Wendy as a mother figure, wanting to revert to the childhood routines of medicine, tooth-brushing and a bedtime story. We didn’t really get to hear what Wendy, played by the distinctively-voiced Marie Arnet thought of what it felt like to fly away from a Victorian household and immediately become a surrogate mother-figure to the Lost Boys, apart from a brief lament while the others are asleep which echoes a song her mother sings in the first act. There was also not a lot made of her being shot as a “great white bird lady,” very much in the manner of the swan in Parsifal, other than in Mr Ayres’ nod to Wagner in the music. This Wendy was not cast as the responsible older sister to John (Nicholas Sharratt) and Michael (Rebecca Bottone) which I thought I remembered form the book. Instead it felt as if the children were led by the irrepressible energy of Miss Bottone as the youngest child, Michael, who was a convincing, impish, bell-like schoolboy (until the final hug with father in which I distinctly saw her twerking.)
Holding this all together, most of the time above the stage instead of on it, showing incredible facility in his flying harness was Iestyn Morris as Peter Pan. Just as he had done with Wendy and with Mrs Darling, Mr Ayres took Peter Pan to the extremes of his vocal range. Mr Morris was a puckish Peter, fleet of foot and full of bravado until the moment he admitted the cause of his sorrowful rage and inexorable loneliness: he returned home after a jaunt to Neverland to find his place in his own bed and his mother’s heart had been taken by a usurper. This Peter is positively cavalier about Wendy, showing little or no compassion and certainly no apparent romantic interest. (His so-called “kiss” is the gift of an acorn, which subsequently saves her life.) He is much more attuned to feisty Tiger Lily, enjoying a duet with her which represents one of the opera’s most beautiful and lyrical moments, regardless of its Oedipal connotations. If only there had been a better balance between those lyrical fragments – in which Miss Arnet, Miss Summers, Mr Morris and Mr Holland began to touch our hearts with the beauty of their singing – and the frenetic bluster of the crowd scenes, then this opera would have been much more effective both emotionally and dramatically.
Once again, this is a brilliant score from Mr Ayres. I would have enjoyed more instances of his rare ability to express humour in music, so evident in the recent concert scores. Setting that aside, we were served a veritable smorgasbord of references to Janacek, Britten, a large slice of Walton, a hint of klezmer, sea shanties and an ecclesiastical chorus of pirates sung in close harmony to “aargh!.” There was most certainly never a dull moment. The claustrophobic nature of the set, full of the wonderful gimmicks of a long case clock which becomes the crocodile, the train with headlights appearing from the gloom which is the pirate ship in full sail gave me a sense that this is a child’s internal fantasy, played under a table or under the bedclothes where a child might construct another world. The orchestra of Welsh National Opera, conducted by Erik Nielsen was excellent, contributing hugely to the fizzing energy of the ensemble cast.
And yet I have come away with a feeling that I wanted more from the first act, much more characterization, a greater contrast between the two worlds, a sense that, in the end, there is nothing better than coming home to your own bed.
(Photos : Clive Barda, from the ROH website)