Vaughan Williams: Riders to the Sea, with Sibelius' Luonnotar

English National Opera

London, 28 November 2008 2 stars

Riders to the SeaVaughan Williams' one act opera Riders to the Sea, based on the play by J.M. Synge, is centred around an old woman on the Aran Islands, Maurya, who has lost her husband and four of her sons to the sea. Michael, her fifth son, is suspected to have drowned (some of his clothes had been found on the shore), whilst the sixth and last, Bartley, is eager to take two horses by sea to the Galway fair, despite the storm raging around him.

The opera is only 40 minutes long, and its dramatic scope clearly incredibly limited - Bartley sure enough soon takes his leave of his mother, and his body is recovered from the sea shortly after. Its success thus rests upon the ability of the writing, and performances, to quickly draw us into the old and ancient world of these islanders and, particularly, to make us be moved by the weight of a lifetime's grief upon Maurya's shoulders. There is little conflict between characters - only Maurya and her two daughters feature prominently, and their essential isolation from each other as emotional nodes in the piece is underscored by the fact they never sing at the same time. As I have said there is very little in the way of narrative. It is the intimate experiences of Maurya, her ultimate recognition of the certitude that her suffering has reached its peak, and her release from that suffering (in an important sense at least), which are the matter of this opera.

The director, conductor and cast thus have to somehow communicate a work to their audience that is essentially an intensely concentrated third act, cut off from its dramatic moorings. The solution, in one sense at least, could be to augment the work with either another one-act opera, or perhaps to take another root and seek to enrich the staging with the yoking together of the one act of the Vaughan Williams with some other appropriate work. In the event Fiona Shaw, in her operatic directing debut, and the now sadly deceased Richard Hickox (whose place has been taken by the ENO's musical director Edward Gardner), took the second option. They came up with the creative solution of introducing the opera with a performance of the Sibelius tone poem Luonnotar. The gap between the two works was bridged by some specially commissioned incidental music composed by John Woolrich, replete with archive recordings of Aran Islander's songs. Binding all these elements together was the Irish artist Dorothy Cross' (bio) luminescent video projection, which softly and eloquently moved from slow underwater images of jellyfish, a woman and a horse in the Sibelius, into more abstract patterns of colour-infused clouds in the opera.

Suson Gritton

The conception worked rather well, in one sense. The subject of the Sibelius piece-a desolate spirit of the air has been impregnated by the waves, drifts for centuries in the water before eventually giving birth to the heavens, moons and stars after the god Ukko lays eggs on her legs - is germane to the opera in that it poetically evokes the vastness and the sublime transcendence of the sea. The character of the music also introduces us to the spirit of the following work, in that both compositions manifest a sort of dark, rootless, immersive tonality. The video projection was subtly effective throughout, and the vast spaces and limited props of the craggy set were used with invention and purpose. The problems of the production, which I will come to in due course, were musical, and dramatic.

The staging of the Sibelius was simple and effective. The air spirit stood high above the dark stage, cloaked in shadow, within one of the small boats (here standing vertical) later used symbolically in the opera along with similar boats to remind us of Maurya's sons. As the piece progressed, her movements became a little more expansive, and she shed her robes. She was finally borne down and carried off stage as the incidental music conveyed us forward into the more physical, earthy reality of the Aran Islands. The soprano Susan Gritton gave a commanding, intelligently controlled and highly vivid performance in a demanding solo role as the air spirit, and Edward Gardner and the ENO Orchestra produced a highly evocative reading of the stunning harmonies and iridescent colours of Sibelius' score. The hushed bass clarinet, piccolo and muted strings combination that recurred throughout was strikingly given. Gardner carefully led the ensemble through the spectral imagery of the work towards a powerful climax at the word 'waves', where the full force of the timpani and brass combined with the confident, intense top notes of Gritton in a sound of impressive fury and wonder.

Appetites were duly whet by this passionate introduction; perhaps any concerns the audience clearly had about lack of substance in the overall presentation (expensive tickets for under an hour of music) were unwarranted? Sadly this was not the case. Though the Sibelius provided a powerful opening, it unwittingly set a benchmark of music-dramatic potency that the opera failed, profoundly failed even, to meet. The problems arose out of the work's special nature as an almost resolutely frantic and intense glimpse into one woman's soul. The music-violent, discontinuous, tumultuous and tonally unanchored as it is-was vivid enough in its way. The writing for the voice concentrates on a limited scope of gestures within a post-Wagnerian style of recitative, and this also drew its audience into a heightened mode of expression where all is hysterical frenzy, and life is permanently on the edge of peril. Given the dramatic situation of the work this style of writing was understandable. But if Vaughan Williams thought that half an hour of this (without preparation or interruption) makes for a convincing dramatic presentation, then he was delusional. Identification with Maurya's fated plight gradually ebbs away, and it is replaced by a mild confusion as to how we reached this emotional point, or the intended emotional point at least, so soon.

Riders to the Sea

The performances mirrored this unresolved conception. Somehow, with an experienced, esteemed actor at the helm, the acting and personenriege of Kate Valentine as Cathleen and Claire Booth as Nora were by any measure overwrought and hammy (the former was more culpable it has to be said, though her singing was generally idiomatic and secure, as was Booth's). Perhaps in an attempt to replicate the famous Irish persona of heightened expression and emotional openness, Shaw has her cast move frantically around the stage, every action pronounced, every emotion writ large. She really should have known better. This is an intimate work full of an outpouring of grief certainly, but that grief should be controlled, and delivered in measured proportions. If only the support had followed the mercifully subtle lead of Patricia Bardon, who was full of understated anguish and anger at the fate befallen her as Maurya, without ever resorting to loud and stagy movements or singing. She held on securely to her fragmented line, and always projected clearly and powerfully into the auditorium.

The language of the libretto (adapted by the composer from the play), unapologetically fastened to Hiberno-English as it is (for example: 'Is it Bartley it is', or 'Herself does be saying prayers half through the night'), was also somewhat grating in that it consistently drew attention to itself rather than absorbing the action. I've heard worse Irish accents than what were delivered here (I'm Irish), but overall the tone couldn't help but feeling other, exotic, and 'Oirish'.

Things do pick up towards the end, where the music finally modulates into something more sensuous and tender, though it is still pent-up with emotion. The offstage chorus introduce a lyric edge to the writing, and the soloists become exposed to and marooned with their inevitable fate. The composer's pallid orchestration (especially set against the Sibelius) finally takes on a more sparing warmth. The work ebbs away quite movingly with a repeated rising third figure in the strings that calls attention to the elegiac spirit gradually infusing the opera in these latter stages, effectively a coda in which the protagonist finds a sort of redemptive solace. That solace is reflected in the now poignant writing for the lead and band, which Bardon and Gardner delivered with a great deal of grace. Despite this though, the staging never really overcame the work's obvious failings of proportion and event, and the hammy antics and uncomfortable folksiness of the performances delivered a crucial blow to the whole endeavour. It was quite a bewildering effect it has to be said to be standing up in the Coliseum to re-enter the London evening after less than an hour of music.

By Stephen Graham

Photos: Clive Barda