fri 18/10/2019

A Christmas Carol, Welsh National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

A Christmas Carol, Welsh National Opera

A Christmas Carol, Welsh National Opera

Dickensian Christmas as one-man opera only half a good idea

Mark Le Brocq as Jacob Marley with nightcap and chains Robert Workman

Dickens’s public readings from his novels were almost as famous and popular as the novels themselves. He would write special scripts that gave prominence to particular characters and that dramatized the salient events of each story; and of all these performances, A Christmas Carol was one of the favourites, his and his audiences’. So what better idea than to turn this unforgettable tale into an opera: an opera for a single singer, dramatizing the story, impersonating all the main characters, being, as it were, Dickens himself with added music?

Iain Bell’s opera, new last year but performed here for the first time in the Weston Studio of Cardiff’s Millennium Centre on Friday, is the answer to that question. The idea, it turns out, is only half good. For a speaker, whether the author or, recently and brilliantly, Simon Callow treading page-like in his steps, it works because for an actor being alone with a script on an empty stage is both liberating and a kind of implied triumph over all the other actors who aren’t there to get in your way.

For a singer the situation is very different. He (in this case) is the prisoner of the score and the orchestra; he cannot deviate, hesitate or repeat. He simply has to get it right, no easy matter in a 90-minute monologue against a complex and not altogether considerate orchestral score.

So great praise for tenor Mark Le Brocq for surviving this challenge, generally making sense of it, and turning it into a genuine entertainment, holding the stage in the guise of the author with bald pate and bushy side hair, an array of hats, cloaks, shoes, a finger puppet for never-so-Tiny Tim, and an Olympiad of dashes and leaps, Roger-de-Coverley dance steps, and squeaky children’s voices, that would surely have delighted Dickens’s audience as much as it delighted WNO’s.

Le Brocq (pictured right with Tiny Tim) is a stage natural. So long as he was playing to the audience, hauling up pretty girls from the front stalls or kissing them under the mistletoe, gesticulating to the conductor, or drumming up applause for simply changing his coat, he was in his element. But skilful and powerful singer though he is, he couldn’t wholly disguise the vocal problems in Bell’s writing. The opera calls for huge stamina. Yet Bell often writes for his 15-piece chamber orchestra as if the singer weren’t there.

Absurdly, his most delicate effects – such as the exquisite opening to the second act – are reserved for moments when the voice is silent. The voice strikes up and the orchestra competes. Listening to the orchestra, there is much to enjoy of an anecdotal kind; but listening to the singer can be as wearing as it must be for him singing this music. Could one follow the ins and outs of the story without having read it? I have my doubts.

Polly Graham’s direction here was lively and atmospheric, nicely if sometimes erratically lit by Ceri James, and straightforwardly designed by Nate Gibson. Graham might have thought of thematizing Le Brocq’s frequent use of a score, presumably as an aide memoire. After all, Dickens must surely have read from a text, however freely. James Southall conducted attentively and painstakingly, and the players did their best to tone down Bell’s more obvious excesses. But in the end a score is a chastity belt for which only the composer holds the key. And at the crucial moment he, in Derrida’s sense, is absent.

Bell has another new opera coming up for WNO in June: a setting of David Jones’s prose poem In Parenthesis. Whether this will have a narrative format like A Christmas Carol I’ve no idea, but I hope the singers will be given more musical space.

The singer is the prisoner of the score and orchestra; he cannot deviate, hesitate or repeat


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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