In the current economic climate it is brave of Welsh National Opera to take on a large-scale opera such as Iain Bell’s In Parenthesis, which follows the fortunes and celebrates the achievements of a group of soldiers from the Royal Welsh Fusiliers during the First World War.
In Parenthesis is an ensemble piece and makes huge demands of the chorus – WNO’s is a great asset here. The ladies have various functions, such the women left at home and Dryad-like spirits of the woods who claim the dead infantrymen, Valkyrie-like. They open the work delivering chant-like in hugely effective style. The gentlemen are military fodder and sang lustily. The choral song opening the second half is wonderfully rich and harmonious.
There are echoes of other operatic works in Bell’s setting. Using the Salve Regina at the end is akin to Poulenc’s use of the prayer at the conclusion of Dialogues des Carmélites. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie also sprang to mind – their subjects are not so dissimilar.
Bell’s music is fascinating, clear of texture, with telling use of percussion and solo instruments at critical moments. It is very beautiful at times, and the more dramatic moments are vividly realised. The moment when a German solder (the mellifluous voice of Simon Crosby Buttle) is heard intoning “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” across the trenches and the Welsh soldiers respond with their own version of the carol was poignant indeed. Although one needs to fully register the complexity of the score beyond one listen, Carlo Rizzi led a powerful and dramatically sure interpretation with the ever-responsive WNO Orchestra.
There were some exciting portrayals. Andrew Bidlack was the focus as Private Ball. He sang with beauty and charted the character’s spiritual journey as he loses his comrades one by one. Marcus Farnsworth played Lance Corporal Lewis, and the most conventionally (if moving) operatic moment finds these two young men sharing a moment of quiet on the Front – one reading H. G. Wells and the other the poetry of Rupert Brooke. Graham Clark and Donald Maxwell lit up the stage at their every appearance as the boastful old lags. Also impressive was Alexandra Deshorties, entirely at home and sympathetic. Peter Coleman-Wright was a presence as the Bard of Britannia and the HQ Officer, though his voice no longer sounds the beautiful focussed instrument it once was, although hopefully this was just an off-night.
David Pountney’s staging is sure-footed and relevant, with some clever touches – I really liked the ladies using their floral hats as wreaths, for example. However, the dryads became a little tiresome, and the Daphne-esque transfiguration of the Queen into a tree borders dangerously on fussiness and kitsch – especially when the music was saying it all. The designs are evocative, however, and the whole is beautifully lit. In Parenthesis is a stirring opera and production and is due in London soon.
- Further performances at the Royal Opera House on June 29 & July 1
- From a different WNO performance, In Parenthesis is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday July 2 at 6.30 p.m. (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)