Review – Vaughn Williams’ “Riders to the Sea” (and Sibelius’ “Luonnotar”) – English National Opera at the London Coliseum

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Today we trucked into town for a matinee performance of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Riders to the Sea.” I will be honest about why I picked this show: it was 1) on a Sunday and sweet fuck all was happening anywhere else (except at the National), and it was 2) short (one hour long!) and 3) cheap (15 quid tickets, hurray!). This meant that no matter how bad it was, the pain was going to be short in duration and the cost wasn’t going to make me bewail my fate as a purchaser of ill priced tickets for an afternoon of doom. Plus it would get me home in time to cook a proper dinner and get to bed at the right time on a Sunday night (which I’ve gone and totally screwed up by staying up late writing this review – ah, the irony!).

Well, actually, I also went because my uncle was visiting – which was the entire reason why I was trying to find something to do on a Sunday at all (after all, I could have gone to see Sweeney Todd at the Union Theatre – but he nixed that), and the fact that it was on a Sunday was why I wanted it to not be a long show. But also, my uncle is a big fan of opera, but usually refuses to see it when he visits me in London, as he feels that between Munich and San Francisco he’s not actually likely to get anything done here that he hasn’t seen done elsewhere better (he does love his German opera). However … this was an English language opera and one that seemed rather unusual. I was right in picking it – my uncle thought it was something he’d likely never get a chance to see again. And, who knows, perhaps he’s even familiar with the composer – I had never heard of him (but I’m not one much for modern opera, so there you have it). Frank was actually pleased about going to see opera with me in London – the first time we’ve done so since I moved here.

The performance opened with Sibelius’ “Luonnotar” as sung by Susan Gritton. The setting was thus: a woman with long hair is standing in a boat stood on end in front of a screen showing water moving, so that it looks like we are overhead, in the sky, watching her floating in the ocean. She sings a song that sounds like a Finnish creation story, about a woman who floats in the sea and raises her knee above the water so a duck can nest on it, then twitches and sends the duck eggs flying everywhere, forming the land and the sky (or so I recall). The singing was plaintive, but the performance suffered again from ENO’s complete inability to let the music tell its own story without silly distractions; in this case, the singer removing her hair veil and letting it drop dramatically to the floor. Please, people, just let the singers do their work, acting when necessary, and otherwise just emoting via song. I liked both the song and the story it told and the imagery of the water – and was pleased that it was done as a fully staged piece rather than just being a recital. And it shifted perfectly into …

Riders from the Sea, which I really knew nothing about other than that it was sung in English. And what is it? It’s an operatic ghost story! I’ve never seen this genre done as opera before and I really enjoyed it. I find the atonality of modern opera generally boring to listen to, but it actually added to the creepy air of what was going on. And the staging was quite good – it took place in a house, as defined by a bright square on the stage (a plane of rock) that sometimes had a projection of the sea on it, which was furnished with very meager possessions – a chair/table (the top lifted to make it a chair), a stool or two, a basket, and a ladder. This space was set at the foot of cliffs, and the edge of the stage was the edge of another cliff, with the space behind at times showing as the sky and at times the sea. It was all grimly appropriate for the three direly poor women whose lives were completely dependent on their men, and who were all ruled over by the weather and the sea.

As the show starts, the sisters are talking about how one of the brothers, the second to last, is lost, presumably drowned, and their mother’s suffering at her son’s death. The dialogue is all what I think of as Irish vernacular, with very unusual speech patterns, i.e. “There’s a great roaring in the west, and it’s worse it’ll be getting when the tide’s turned to the wind.” (Full text available here, along with lots of background detail to the writing of the original story.) The last brother appears and says goodbye as he prepares to leave to sell two horses at the market in another city, basically a thing he feels vitally necessary given how poor they are. His mother is dead set against him leaving given the state of the wind and the tide, but he goes anyway, his mother then rushing after him (at her daughters’ urging) to undo the ill of sending him off with angry words. And then the fun happens, or, rather, the tale begins to really become creepy, and if you don’t want any spoilers, I will leave you there. It all seemed to go a bit much for the stereotypes of the “superstitious/ignorant Irish,” but these days that all seems like a fairytale itself.

While I didn’t much care for the music of this show, the libretto, singing, and setting could not be faulted. My favorite moment was when the mom (Patricia Bardon) is singing of her grief at losing every man in her life, while overturned boats are lowered from the rafters, looking like tombstones landing on the stage around her. It really conveyed the loss viscerally and looked great. The one thing that drove me nuts, however, was the cheap plastic bag that the missing brother’s clothes were in. For God’s sake, folks, can we not pretend at least a little that this is happening in a world that existed before plastic bags were used?

Overall, this was a good afternoon and I was pleased with the cost and investment of time. That said, I would really like to see more works by the playwright, J. M. Synge, who wrote the original text upon which the opera was based, far more so than I want to see anything else by Mr. Williams.

(This review is for a matinee performance seen on Sunday, November 30th, 2008.)

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