Charlotte Bray Entanglement | Thomas Hyde That Man Stephen Ward
UK Tour, Summer 2015
Nova Music Opera’s double bill of contemporary one-act chamber operas at the 71st Cheltenham Music Festival centred on the ill-fated main protagonists in two notorious legal cases from modern British history. Receiving its first performance, Entanglement related the final months in 1955 of nightclub manageress Ruth Ellis, the last women to be hanged in Britain. There were three characters: Ruth (the soprano Kirsty Hopkins); her admirer, the businessman Desmond Cussen (Howard Quilla Croft), and the man she loved, the abusive racing driver David Blakely (Greg Tassell), whom she shot outside a pub. Their convoluted relationships were succinctly but tellingly conveyed within a tight, five-scene structure lasting around 45 minutes.
The director Richard Williams’s sets were minimalist, diverting attention onto the performers, who carried the story’s considerable dramatic weight. An avoidance of period detail served to underline the timeless qualities of the story with its love-triangle, jealousy and obsession. Centre stage was Hopkins as Ruth. She offered a gripping, multi-layered performance suggesting vulnerability, steely determination and instability in equal measure.
Drawing cannily upon a chamber group of flutes, clarinets, percussion, violin, cello and double bass, Charlotte Bray’s often baleful music underpinned the whole work. From the bleak opening bars of the score, with vertiginous string harmonics stretched to breaking point punctuated by icily metallic percussion strikes, it was clear things were not going to end well. The ensemble’s extreme registers often provided a taut frame within which the singer’s lines entwined, reflecting the twisting connections and dependencies of the opera’s title. Ruth’s extended aria in the closing scene was a final cathartic expression of her passionate nature and it formed a cogent, lyrical climax to the work. Amy Rosenthal’s honed and terse libretto caught the complexity of her leading character. During her imprisonment, Ruth’s sole request was for a bottle of peroxide for her hair, a deft touch, giving expression to the character’s poise as well as her glamour. A resignation to her fate was encapsulated in the memorable last line, ‘It’s only a leap-like love’.
George Vass and the Nova Music Ensemble contributed significantly to the success of this operatic debut. Sensitively interpreting Bray’s finely-spun, often attenuated score, their subtle heightening of the tensions, resentments and compulsions driving the action onstage complemented Rosenthal’s elliptical and punchy text to create an emotionally engaging and haunting piece.
That Man Stephen Ward was first performed at the 2008 Hampstead and Highgate Festival but this new production provided a welcome opportunity to savour again its wit and pathos. The composer Thomas Hyde and his librettist David Norris took an ironically detached approach to their subject, the most serious casualty of the 1963 Profumo affair. The 50-minute music-theatre piece showcased the dramatic and musical talents of the baritone Damian Thantrey, who had the only singing part, that of the hedonistic society osteopath Stephen Ward, supported by silent actors miming the roles of the Tory war minister John Profumo, the Soviet spy Yevgeny Ivanov and the model Christine Keeler. Exploiting Ward’s tendency to daydream and fantasize, Thantrey was required to take on several other personas. In one superbly executed episode Ward assumed the identity of Keeler like an unnerving ventriloquist as the actress Morgan Ashley beatifically mouthed her lines in perfect timing to Thantrey’s queasy falsetto.
Ward’s flighty character was teased out in a series of intense vignettes. The audience’s sympathy was solicited for this scapegoat, a victim of a trumped-up charge of living on immoral earnings. Yet the opera did not shy away from depicting him as a manipulator of people as well as spines, an inveterate name-dropper and, in a scene where he coached Keeler to meet Profumo, as a seedy version of Shaw’s Henry Higgins. His strongest trait, however, was an unfailing eagerness to please: ‘I hope I haven’t let people down too much’ were his plaintive words as he wrote his suicide note.
Rather than attempting any modish early-1960s references, Hyde incorporated the sort of dance-band music of the 1920s and 1930s that Ward would have enjoyed in his youth. Some of this evoked William Walton’s score for Façade – an apt reference since Ward, as depicted here, was always putting on a front for the benefit of others.
Vass and his players relished the score’s various pastiche elements, mirroring the chameleon-like main character in all his guises. They also helped to sustain a convincing narrative arc whereby Ward’s terminal overdose of vodka and sleeping pills seemed an inevitable outcome of the gradual disappearance of his eminent connections and the stark realization that he was quite alone.
Once again, the staging was plain and simple with news bulletin broadcasts filling in background detail so that attention was focused relentlessly on Ward. By the final desperate moments, the audience was made to care about the fate of this well-heeled, sybaritic character. This sleight of hand was achieved by the production’s predominantly tongue-in-cheek flavour, with dashes of cabaret, bedroom farce and burlesque, and chiefly by Thantrey’s brilliant and courageous portrayal of an unsettling but ultimately pitiable personality, laying bare his every tic and twinge. – Opera (September 2015)
Nova Music Opera’s double bill dealing with real-life crime and punishment made for a challenging, thoughtful and well-sung evening.
Each opera in Nova Music Opera’s double bill, directed by Richard Williams and part of the Cheltenham festival, dealt with a notorious legal case, both of which had grim outcomes. No easy evening, then.
In Entanglement, receiving its premiere, composer Charlotte Bray and librettist Amy Rosenthal conjure Ruth Ellis, who murdered her racing-driver lover David Blakely, and is remembered as the last woman to be hanged in Britain, almost exactly 60 years ago. Pleading not guilty but admitting she’d shot him, Ellis was resigned to dying, imagining it as a reunion with the man she loved. A metallic-edged, chill aura of sound sets the tone of the 40-minute piece, its very compression mirroring the short weeks between the shooting and the death penalty.
Yet Bray and Rosenthal are at pains to go deeper into Ellis’s story than her defence team did at the time, emphasising her abusive relationship with the shallow Blakely (tenor Greg Tassell), her anger at being rejected by his friends, and the apparent complicity of a former lover, Desmond Cussen (baritone Howard Quilla Croft), whose gun was her weapon. The tangled question is reopened: was this a crime of passion or a cold-blooded murder? Kirsty Hopkins commanded attention as the peroxide-blonde Ellis, steely and needy, implying an impassive and obsessive nature alongside moments of maternal behaviour.
Thomas Hyde’s That Man Stephen Ward was first heard in 2008, before Geoffrey Robertson and Andrew Lloyd Webber brought the society osteopath’s name back into currency. Hyde’s one-man/multiple-persona show was brilliantly sustained by baritone Damian Thantrey, supported by actors miming John Profumo, Yevgeny Ivanov and Christine Keeler. The injection of a cabaret-style lightness, emphasising Ward as the scapegoat of this high-life/low-life affair, was perceived in despairing flashbacks as he was reduced to suicide.
Conductor George Vass kept it all crisp enough for the two death cycles to overlap by the end, as indeed they did in real life. – The Guardian
Two dramas of sex, sleaze and death in the postwar London underworld … Charlotte Bray’s Entanglement, to a libretto by Amy Rosenthal, is a co-commission from the Presteigne and Cheltenham Festivals for Nova Music Opera, who gave its premiere in Cheltenham earlier this year. It retells the final days of the murderess Ruth Ellis with a bare minimum of means: three singers and a six-piece orchestra. Yet from its opening bars – a low shimmer from a gong, high-tension violin lines hanging in the air – it manages to convey the psychological tension and lingering, headache-like atmosphere of dread that permeates this whole remarkable score.
Dramatically, Amy Rosenthal’s lucid, naturalistic libretto gives the composer plenty to work with, and over the course of its five short scenes Entanglement manages to create two genuinely credible characters, and to sketch in one other. As one corner of the love-triangle, the tenor Greg Tassell sang the part of David Blakeley with a dash and a sweetness straight out of Puccini – with music to match Ruth Ellis’s deluded vision of her abusive lover. If the drama has a weakness, it’s that we didn’t, perhaps, see enough of him to feel the roots of that delusion, though in Kirsty Hopkins’s concentrated, eerily beautiful performance as Ruth, we certainly felt its consequences. Bray’s music for Ruth veers from poignant, expressive arioso (“I’m not the kind of girl he could take home to meet his parents”) to chilling calm in the two final scenes, where she coolly dismisses the future of her children and invites her own death by hanging.
Howard Quilla Croft as the romantic spare-wheel Desmond Cussen gave a quietly shattering performance in these scenes. The lumbering double bass line that had accompanied his earlier scenes now broke into a quivering tremolando, and Croft pushed his baritone agonisingly into the tenor register as Desmond made his final despairing attempt to make Ruth see in him what she saw in the brutish David. Simply staged by director Richard Williams with minimal lighting and back-projected captions, and eloquently conducted by Vass, Entanglement created characters that live with you after the drama has ended: a sure-fire sign that it needs to be seen again, and soon.
The same basic staging served after the interval for a revival of Thomas Hyde’s That Man Stephen Ward; essentially a one-man show told from inside the Walter Mitty-like imagination of the Profumo affair’s “society osteopath”. Damian Thantrey was that man last night, and if the solo format placed some limitations on the storytelling – most troublingly, the presentation of Christine Keeler (gamely played by Agnes Vane) as a wordless fantasy-object – this was an extraordinary vehicle for Thantrey’s handsome baritone, his drolly-nuanced sprechgesang, and his ability to create a character and his world with a raised eyebrow, a complacent smirk, or a sudden, wide-eyed glance of dismay.
Capering suavely and nimbly round David Norris’s playful libretto, and colouring his voice to match the constant shifts of Hyde’s enjoyably decadent score (which veered tipsily from cabaret piano to Bergian angst; imagine a pocket-sized Powder Her Face), Thantrey inhabited the character of this Playboy-era man without qualities with unnerving believability. Sex, sleaze and death in a medieval church in a pretty Welsh market town. Well, what d’you know? It brought the house down. – The Arts Desk
Cecilia McDowall Airborne | Stephen McNeff Prometheus Drown'd
UK Tour, Summer/Autumn 2014
'The 32nd Presteigne Festival was launched with a pair of new works by Stephen McNeff and Cecilia McDowall, two composers closely associated with this annual Radnorshire-based event. Sharing a common theme of loss and lives prematurely ended, both benefited from the sure sense of pace of Richard Williams’s stage direction and the sensitivity and flair of the Nova Music Opera Ensemble under the committed direction of the festival’s artistic director, George Vass'.
'McNeff’s music-theatre piece Prometheus Drown’d is a reworking of his 2010 monologue A Voice of One Delight, also premiered at Presteigne. Calling for mezzo-soprano, three actors and an instrumental ensemble including modest percussion, the revised score (its libretto was reworked by Williams) opens up the original material. It relates the poet Shelley’s untimely drowning in the bay of La Pezia from the perspective of his companion Edward Trelawny (a spoken role), while Shelley’s inamorata, Jane Williams, sings verses inspired by and addressed to her from the last few months of the poet’s life. McNeff deploys his restricted palette with taste and point, suffusing the score with an Italianate warmth and lyricism as well as finding an aptly sombre, elegiac note. Small bells, antique cymbals and harp chime and glisten, while bass clarinet and cello contribute darker undertones. Passionate and engaging, Jane Williams (sung by Clare McCaldin, for whom the original monologue and this elaboration upon it were conceived) remains the focus of attention. Indeed, so powerful was McCaldin’s presence that the three male actors with whom she shared the stage (Grant Sterry as the young Trelawny, Christopher Good as the older Trelawny and Max Keeble as Shelley) occasionally seemed a distraction. One cannot help wondering if Prometheus Drown’d is a work in progress, and whether a full-blown operatic treatment of this tale may lie ahead'.
'Cecilia McDowall’s chamber opera Airborne was inspired by Sagittarius Rising, Cecil Arthur Lewis’s account of his experiences as a fighter pilot in World War I. Drawing upon logbooks, letters and diaries, Andy Rashleigh’s text bears the stamp of authenticity and presents the airman Johnny and the nurse Alice as foully rounded characters. From the opening bars McDowall showed an innate understanding of opera’s potential for ambiguity and the power of suggestion. The Edwardian idyll of the prologue, with its distant strains of the popular song ‘Roses of Picardy’, is subverted by an ominously insistent use of side drum conjuring up dance-band associations as well as gunfire. In the first scene, the two principals awkwardly introduce each other in an extended duet, and this sense of the dislocation is mirrored, to poignant effect, near the end of the piece as the disembodied voice of Johnny, killed in action, sounds together with that of Alice as she sings of longing to hear him. The title refers not only to the primitive flying machines but also to gas warfare, and an intensely expressive soprano aria on this theme forms the opera’s emotional core. In the affecting conclusion, Johnny’s offstage singing of ‘Roses of Picardy’ serves as a piquant reminder of the opera’s idealized beginning; when his voice falters, an ascending solo violin takes up Alice’s reference to birdsong, leaving us with this delicate symbol of nature as the scene fades from view'.
'The soprano Donna Lennard and baritone Henry Manning excelled in demanding roles, bringing warmth and intensity to their detailed characterizations. The staging was simple but effective: rows of linen sheets accumulated bloodstains and holes so that as the story unfolded, the backdrop became more war-torn; the torso of an aircraft suggested perilous fragility. In Williams’s direction the tiniest gesture, both musical and physical, conveyed worlds of feeling. The well-crafted score makes subtle use of ostinatos and repeated motifs, and features fully-fledged arias. Judiciously selected combinations of the six players – Flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), violin, cello, harp and percussion – evoke precisely the period setting. Future operatic works by McDowall are keenly anticipated'.– Opera
Britten Curlew River
UK Tour, Summer/Autumn 2013
'There was one Britten offering which reminded us anew of this composer’s genius. For its first-ever venture into opera the Presteigne Festival ... engaged Nova Music Opera to perform the church parabler Curlew River in St Andrew’s Church. Everything gelled perfectly under the seamless and flexible conducting of George Vass, and as the Madwoman searching for her lost son Mark Milhofer was simply extraordinary in the subtle vividness of his body-language ... This was my highlight of the year, and a very special event in the quiet remoteness of the lovely Welsh Marches'. – The Birmingham Post, Classical Review of the Year, 2013
'For me, the Britten highlight of the year was Nova Music Opera’s stunning production of Curlew River, a hauntingly powerful chamber opera that portrays a woman’s desperate search for her lost son with poignant intensity. St John the Evangelist Church, in Iffley Road, was the perfect venue for this simply-staged but incredibly moving production, which I found utterly compelling. Now I know why people call Britten a genius.' – The Oxford Times, Classical Review of the Year, 2013
Sally Beamish Hagar in the Wilderness/Britten Curlew River
UK Tour, Summer/Autumn 2013
'... this year’s programme strode ambitiously into the world of opera, with the Scottish premiere of Hagar in the Wilderness by Stirling-based composer Sally Beamish, performed by Nova Music Opera in the atmospheric Holy Trinity Church (St Andrews).
Okay, it was brief, and used only modest singing and instrumental forces, but its powerful Old Testament story – of Abraham banishing his servant Hagar and her son Ishmael, who he has fathered, to the wilderness – and Beamish’s pared-down yet eloquent musical setting proved hugely compelling.
Kirsty Hopkins put everything she had into a strongly expressive performance in the title role, and Owen Gilhooly was appropriately grumpy as an implacable Abraham. Conductor George Vass drew vivid playing from his quintet of instrumentalists, highlighting telling inflections in Beamish’s persuasive score. The repetitions in the vocal lines soon became quite wearing, but there was no doubting Beamish’s sure dramatic pacing and striking storytelling.' – The Scotsman
'Though it is only 35 minutes long ... Sally Beamish’s new chamber opera is nothing if not ambitious in allegorical scope. Deceptively simple in form, it narrates the biblical tale of Hagar, the Egyptian mother of Abraham’s illegitimate son, Ishmael, whom Abraham casts into the wilderness when his 70-year-old wife, Sarah, improbably gives birth to Isaac.
The story’s symbolic weight, however, is prodigious, because Ishmael and Isaac are respectively the progenitors of the Palestinians and the Jews. Clara Glynn’s rather too blunt modern libretto doesn’t let us forget that one side regards itself as ‘dispossessed’ and the other as God’s chosen race. ‘For the chosen, there’s plenty of water’, Kirsty Hopkins’s clear-toned and affecting Hagar sings, as she and her child stare at death in the desert before being rescued by the angel Gabriel. ‘Your future is not my problem’, she is told by Owen Gilhooly’s unyielding and unsympathetically depicted Abraham.
Happily, Beamish’s subtle score, deftly conducted by George Vass, counteracts this blatant subtext with beguiling delicacy: mellow, Ravel-like colours in which viola and flute are prominent; vaguely Middle Eastern melodic contours; pattering percussion and pizzicato bass. Richard Williams’s shoestring production, for the newish Nova Music Opera, also opts wisely for restrained literalism, rather than bludgeoning us with metaphorical significance.
Opening the consistently ambitious Presteigne Festival in the pretty Welsh border town, Hagar is intelligently coupled with Britten’s church parable Curlew River, which also focuses on a grieving parent and an angelic intervention. Williams’s otherwise conventional staging has its melodramatic lighting moments, with a blazing white cross suddenly appearing on the church wall, but the show is chiefly remarkable for Mark Milhofer’s wonderfully deranged interpretation of the Madwoman — his unhinged stares and dysfunctional twitches perfectly matching the disconcertingly creepy glissandos that infuse Britten’s score. Sturdy support, too, from Christopher Foster’s Traveller and Stephen Holloway’s Abbot.' – The Times
For the first time in its 31-year history, the Presteigne festival has produced an opera. In a collaboration with Nova Music Opera, and funded by the Britten-Pears Foundation, Sally Beamish was commissioned to write a short chamber opera as a companion piece to Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River.
The theme of motherhood and loss was common to both and seemed to offer a strong pairing. Britten’s church parable has a madwoman searching for her lost son, while the Old Testament story of Hagar is that of the handmaid who bears Abraham’s first child, but is cast into the wilderness with her infant when his wife, Sarah, miraculously bears him a second son in old age. Hagar and Ishmael are spared death when God sends the angel Gabriel to create a spring of water ... Beamish’s instrumental writing was effective, hand-played drums and expressive flute-writing creating episodes of Brittenesque atmosphere.
'... the evening’s emotional peak came in Mark Milhofer’s fine portrayal of Britten’s Madwoman. St Andrew’s church provided an intimacy equivalent to that of Orford Church, where Curlew River was first heard and, under George Vass’s baton, Nova Music Opera’s realisation had the virtue of unpretentiousness, the Abbot in a pale-coloured kimono the only nod to Britten’s Japanese inspiration. Milhofer’s performance was notable not only for its vocal poise, but for his use of eyes and hands to convey the torment of not knowing and, eventually, a pained quietude at the realisation of her son’s fate. It was impossible not to care about this character.' – The Guardian
English Music Festival, May 2010
'Lasting only half an hour, Savitri is an unusual opera of utmost economy. It begins with the unaccompanied voice of Death (bass-baritone David Wilson-Johnson, in potent yet lyrical voice as befits the here ultimately benign character) calling out for Savitri’s ailing husband, the woodcutter Satyavan. But Death is soon tricked by Savitri (soprano Janice Watson, an impassioned, soaring performance), and Satyavan (tenor Mark Chaundy, on ardent form) recovers ... The conductor George Vass shaped a mystical-sounding performance from just twelve players of Orchestra Nova and a wordless female chorus drawn from the City of Canterbury Chamber Choir'. – Sunday Telegraph
'Two genuine giants of English music, Delius and Holst, produced the real article namely a defined musical personality offering sustenance, interest and spiritual comfort. George Vass and Orchestra Nova/City of Canterbury Chamber Choir provided an object lesson of Delian authenticity, with exquisite and heartfelt beauty of tone in the incidental music to Hassan with narrator Paul Guinery ... This was followed by a rare outing for Holst’s opera Savitri with singers Janice Watson, Mark Chaundry and David Wilson-Johnson ... a simple (and short) story of love triumphing over death. Subdued throughout, in this religious setting, it seemed a precursor to Britten’s Church Parables'. – Musical Opinion
Britten Curlew River
Hampstead and Highgate Springfest, May 2009
'… Robert Murray's exquisite and anguished Madwoman … Under George Vass, the orchestral performance was superb.' – The Independent
'[St Stephen’s, Hampstead] … ideally suited to Curlew River, with its plainchant, processions of hooded monks and Noh-play influenced dramatic style. Moved by a visit to Japan, Britten created a new sound world for this one-act piece: full of sinuous not-quite-unisons, evocative bells and harps, floating vocal phrases that meld into ethereal downward glissandos and then silence, and brilliantly florid instrumental cadenzas (particularly for horn and flute, superbly played here by Evgeny Chebykin and Joanna Shaw) … George Vass obtained fine playing, and admirable singing came from Robert Murray as the anguished Madwoman, Andrew Slater (Ferryman) and Lynton Black (Abbot).' – The Times
Thomas Hyde That Man Stephen Ward
Hampstead and Highgate Festival, May 2008
‘…a score which was certainly alive in its own way to possibilities of humour, and which responded to Norris’s deft verse with parodies of Handel and of Finzi. This serviceable furniture, and references to cabaret and 1950s popular music, was used adroitly, like the actual armchair and sofa reshuffled between scenes in Yvonne Fontane’s effective production …Though it may be too early to announce a new theatrical talent, Hyde in the meantime is certainly one to be watched.’ – Opera (July 2008)
‘…the piece itself was interesting: a quirky, clever score…with a promising grasp of what it takes to make music-theatre work…With a modest but punchy chamber ensemble conducted by George Vass, it turned small history into surprisingly large musical gestures.’ – Opera Now (September 2008)
‘Society scandal – when low life meets high life – is compelling news and, in Thomas Hyde’s first stage work, compelling opera too…In this debut theatre-piece Hyde’s musical skills found an ideal vehicle in David Norris’s efficient libretto – but also in bass-baritone Andrew Slater’s accomplished performance…Moving as easily between aria and recitative and between disparate styles from Handel to light music of the 50s, Hyde’s score was effective stage music and a sign of promising things to come.’ – Hampstead and Highgate Express