mon 17/06/2024

Silver Birch, Garsington Opera review - gritty drama in the Chilterns | reviews, news & interviews

Silver Birch, Garsington Opera review - gritty drama in the Chilterns

Silver Birch, Garsington Opera review - gritty drama in the Chilterns

A community coheres in a thoughtful opera on war and manhood

Intimacy in a crowd: Jack (Sam Furness) and Victoria Simmonds as his mother (Anna)Both images by John Snelling

"Everyone suddenly burst out singing"’ wrote Siegfried Sassoon in his paean to humanity amidst the horror of war, "Everyone Sang". And sing they did, all 180 of them, crammed onto Garsington’s modest stage for its new community opera Silver Birch by Roxanna Panufnik to a libretto by Jessica Duchen. Here were primary school children, teenagers, professional singers, members of a women’s refuge, ex-military personnel, and a waggy-tailed dog.

Even Sassoon’s own great-nephew lent voice to a chorus of roof-raising passion and purpose.

And though the poet’s ghost (an expressive Bradley Travis) haunted the stage, this was no rousing tale of First World War heroism but a downbeat drama on the more uncomfortable subject of contemporary war and its aftermath. Jack (the ever-engaging Sam Furness) and his younger brother Davey (a poised James Way) go to Iraq to find purpose and to prove their manhood to an estranged father (a menacing Darren Jeffreys). They return battle-scarred and disillusioned, just like Sassoon’s "boys with old, scared faces… broken and mad". 

Panufnik's signature harmonic ambiguity shuns easy fixes

That’s the story in a nutshell, but Silver Birch, directed with commanding skill by Karen Gillingham,  packs a full-blown opera into its 90 minutes: there are nods to tradition – rousing choruses lit with a halo of children’s voices, a feisty playground song, a visceral military work-out "ballet" (choreographed by Natasha Khamjani, pictured below) to pummelling drums, full-blown combat with a dose of shock and awe (apparently the stage caught fire on the first night), even an "oom-pah" drinking song which turns sour. 

Rhiannon Newman Brown’s symmetrical double-height set provided capacity and institutional atmosphere, while a small central video window pulsed with poetry (Mischa Ying), from lunar beauty to the fire and bloodstain of war. Most vivid were the scenes in Iraq: a nocturne in which the cast of young soldiers cry out in their sleep ("Gas masks on!", "Mum!") to the accompaniment of quiet brass and bluesy piano. As Jack steals out to give his favoured brother a gift, his little sister Chloe (show-stopping eight-year-old Maia Greaves) sings her kisses for him to the moon. The blind confusion of battle came through in lumbering percussion and whistles, while spooky marimba and sliding trombone evoked its uneasy aftermath. A Lance Corporal in the Irish Guards advised on the production, and the sense of chaos – "Why are we taking this compound?" – has a ring of truth.

Silver Birch imageBack at home, there was sometimes just too much going on: a kaleidoscopic first act whips breathlessly through 19 years, from Jack’s birth to his parents’ (Simon and Anna’s) divorce. The loss of Simon’s job and his conflict with Anna (an empathetic Victoria Simmonds) was overwhelmed by a whirl of bodies and vocal murkiness. Jack’s rather unlikely yen for Sassoon’s poetry was shoe-horned into the story via his teacher Mrs Morrell (Sarah Redgwick on powerful form). Trained voices bloomed like exotic flowers on to the more transparently-written chorus parts, but the orchestral underpinning didn’t always support them, and voicing and balance were problematic. In Panufnik’s unusual score (ably conducted by Douglas Boyd) piano and tuned-percussion dominate, while strings and winds (from a band of mixed students and professionals) felt under-used. There were episodes of inspired intimacy and some deft humour in the childrens’ parts, but a predictable cantabile style of word-setting, in which the final word is always elongated, didn’t serve Sassoon’s own poetry well. 

To her credit, Panufnik's signature harmonic ambiguity shuns easy fixes. Though one sensed a debt to Jonathan Dove in her lively ostinati and soaring declamations, she eschews the shiny surface common to this kind of work, while delivering an eminently hummable main chorus. Hero Jack strikes a dissonant note throughout and, like her music, his return offers no tidy resolution, but Sassoon's challenge to suffer alongside others: "My real war is here at home."

Even Sassoon’s great-nephew lent voice to a chorus of roof-raising passion and purpose.


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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