Friday, 28 November 2008
That’s the only word to describe the devastatingly simple end of Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea, as Synge’s archetypal matron of loss Maurya finally takes on board the deaths of her six sons by naming them – ‘no man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied’ – and the hungry, unquiet sea roars against her last, becalmed major chords of acceptance: nature versus man in a final unanswered question.
Planned as the culmination of one intense hour in English National Opera's most unorthodox offering of the year, this took on the aspect of a perfect, calm memorial to Richard Hickox, who was due to conduct it (Edward Gardner did so, with tact and sensitivity). How Patricia Bardon, pictured above by Clive Barda with Leigh Melrose as the drowned Bartley and Kate Valentine as Cathleen, got through those lines without any break in the assured legato I don’t know, but this was a quietly authoritative performance from our finest contralto. Here she is again, very much centre stage.
What I hadn’t bargained for – I guess I should have read the papers, but I’m glad I hadn’t – was Fiona Shaw’s inspired prefacing of Riders with Sibelius’s Kalevala creation myth Luonnotar.
Suspended aloft in a long boat, as if viewed from above, the equally glorious Susan Gritton gave a no less searing interpretation as the air-spirit ocean-bound for seven centuries before her accidental act of creation. Her ideal lyric soprano now reaches out to a surprising richness, the taxing high laments pouring over us without the slightest hint of strain (there’s even a little in Soile Isokoski’s much-touted, BBC Music Magazine award-winning recording).
Birth, death, rebirth in aqueousness formed the cord between the two pieces, with minimal mood-music from John Woolrich, recorded snatches of Aran island song and the ongoing surge of Dorothy Cross’s superb video work. Sibelius's eight minutes of eternity are, for me, only mirrored in mastery by the end of VW's very internal opera, and the temperatures plummeted for much of it: the interest is in the mostly slate-grey orchestra, not – at least until the end – in the ungainly setting of Synge’s realistic dialogue. But you couldn’t fault Maurya’s daughters as sung by Kate Valentine and Claire Booth, and if Shaw’s staging asked for more febrile movement than the score implies, the bright rectangle of action flanked by cliffs and turbulent sea-pictures kept its focus. And it was totally satisfying to return full circle to the elemental rocking of Sibelius’s nature-mother, reappearing among the rocks in her pregnant state (though perhaps she should have walked calmly down centre stage, like the Lady from the Sea) while upside-down coffin-boats descended from the sky during Vaughan Williams’s epiphany.
PS - Just had an e-exchange with Ed Seckerson; we echo each other, though I guess he's happier with the whole of the VW as a work than I am. You can see Ed’s five-star Independent review here (for once they've pulled the stops out to get something in the paper double-quick; after all, there are only two performances left). As he added in our quick correspondence, 'where else in the world would you see an evening like this? We are lucky.' We are indeed.