Sometimes, opera can go straight to the heart of the here and now. Oma, a Syrian refugee, is marooned on the 12th floor of a tower block, yearning for permission to stay in the UK and carrying the terrible memory of her dangerous Channel crossing in a flimsy boat. She is unaware that other lonely, desperate people are just down the corridor: Edward, a Jamaican widower with undiagnosed dementia, and Grace, a student beset by a menacing voice in her head.
Glyndebourne, stepping away from the opulence we normally associate with its productions, has encapsulated today’s pressing social issues in a single chamber opera, one devised by talking to young people, care home residents, mental health groups and others in each of the towns and cities to be visited by the Glyndebourne Tour this autumn. Audiences heading for The Marriage of Figaro and La bohème in Canterbury, Norwich, Liverpool and Brighton can see the new piece, glass human, before the main opera. In showing the human cost of this government’s feverish immigration policy, it chimes with the desperate journeys in The Boy With Two Hearts, currently running at the National Theatre, but at its core lies another modern concern: the corrosive scourge of loneliness.
Librettist Melanie Wilson has woven a sinuous narrative in which three isolated individuals search for connections and are made whole in the process. It’s essentially an optimistic piece, but it takes a little while to get there. Composer Samantha Fernando scores for accordion, harp, viola, cello and percussion, nimbly played by members of the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra. This surprising combination produces some coolly beautiful timbres, particularly when the harp glitters down over dark chords from the accordion. Descending semitones feature in both the instrumental and vocal writing, a metaphor for the characters’ deepening introspection. A musical pointer towards an external symbol of loneliness, a slowly developing sinkhole, its overwhelming electronic roars, creaks and groans draw the characters out of the building, where in finding one another they find themselves.
If this all sounds a bit chewy, there are moments of sunlight, particularly in the jazzily playful pizzicato interplay between viola and cello (witty conducting here from Ashley Beauchamp) and in Wilson’s wry observations on student Grace’s obsession with social media, damaging as it is for her self-esteem when her detractors use “different voices, saying things they wouldn’t say in life”. Under Lucy Bailey’s admirably clear direction, soprano Anna Cavaliero as Grace gives real substance to Fernando’s sometimes rather limited vocal lines, while baritone Denver Martin Smith does heroic work as Edward, taking over the role at last minute from an indisposed Stephen Bowen. Mezzo-soprano Camille Maalawy brings a graceful dignity to Oma the refugee, but the powerful story of her daughter’s drowning in the Channel is lost in sometimes foggy diction. No doubt this will improve during the run.
Describing In Darkness Let Me Dwell in her authoritative book John Dowland (Faber), the late lutenist Diana Poulton wrote: “This astonishingly lovely song stands among the greatest ever written in the English language. From the opening bars… to the final repetition of the words ‘in darkness let me dwell’, when the voice drops the last despairing note into silence, Dowland’s consummate mastery shows itself in every phrase.” Poulton, a pioneer of the early music revival, would surely have applauded countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford for their devastating performance of this exceptional song that bookended An Anatomy of Melancholy, a dramatised Dowland recital that drew inspiration from Robert Burton’s 1621 book.
Readings from it and from Sigmund Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia (1917) and Darian Leader’s The New Black (2008) punctuated the composer’s greatest hits (Come Again, Sweet Love, Flow, My Tears, Come, Heavy Sleep) with Davies assuming the character of a melancholic 21st-century metropolitan, alone with his exquisite pain. Netia Jones directed, adding video design. It was all beautifully done, but Dowland’s music is so strong in the hands of Davies and Dunford it hardly needs visual support. Come to think of it, Davies and Dunford sounds a bit like a modern-day band and it’s striking how contemporary these songs feel, 16th-century equivalents to today’s guitar ballads in their self-pitying intensity.
The internationally renowned Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment pushes its mission to enlighten to the max, currently basing itself at Acland Burghley school, Tufnell Park, London, working closely with the students. That collaboration has produced some remarkable results, not least The Moon Hares, a touring community opera that takes music from Purcell’s Dioclesian – with additional attractive material from composer James Redwood – to tell Hazel Gould’s enchanting modern fable about self-realisation and freedom. Hundreds of schoolchildren around the country have already taken part. Last week, singers Kirsty Hopkins, Charmian Bedford, Timothy Dickinson and Robert Gildon were joined by terrific musicians and dancers from Acland Burghley and a gloriously enthusiastic, wonderfully rehearsed choir from three London primaries. It’s the turn of Wiltshire schools later this month. Lucky them.
Star ratings (out of five)
glass human ★★★
An Anatomy of Melancholy ★★★★
The Moon Hares ★★★★