Two-thirds of the way through this trilogy of new one-act operas at the Edinburgh International Festival, something operatic was missing. Then, with Ghost Patrol, the “something operatic” kicked in – big time. Stuart MacRae’s three-hander about the scars of war, to a libretto by Louise Welsh, does everything modern opera is supposed do: it asks questions, stirs the imagination, challenges complacency, grabs the heart. Oh, and it renews the art form, too. You come out feeling different – about love, life and death. And yet, despite such complexity of thought and feeling, MacRae and Welsh make opera seem simple: they get the essentials right. So it is good to report that Ghost Patrol moves to Glasgow and London over the coming month, before touring Wales. It deserves to go further.
There was always going to be a hit-and-miss quality about Scottish Opera’s five-year-old programme of “Operas Made in Scotland”. The idea was to nurture the skill of opera-writing in a new generation of composers and librettists, pulling contemporary music theatre back from the experimental abyss – initially in risk-free 15-minute stories. Out of this kindergarten it was hoped that fully grown operas would emerge, worthy of an international festival.
Two composer-librettist teams – Craig Armstrong and Zoë Strachan for The Lady from the Sea, MacRae and Welsh for Ghost Patrol – won commissions, and a third, pairing Huw Watkins and David Harsent for In the Locked Room, brought Music Theatre Wales into the production package. Topping up the festival menu was James MacMillan’s Clemency, a one-acter premiered last year at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio and now taken into Scottish Opera’s repertoire.
Given that Jonathan Mills, festival director for the past six years, is himself a composer of opera, it is odd that he has taken so long to give Edinburgh a taste of the new – and this mini-season was far from distasteful. The entertainment quotient was high, but it also articulated the dilemmas of modern opera: should the librettist take equal billing with the composer? Can opera be groundbreaking within the traditional bounds of a proscenium theatre? Do today’s composers, unversed in operatic etiquette, have the basic skills to extend the art form?
Neither The Lady from the Sea nor In the Locked Room provide convincing answers. In each case, all-male creative teams have chosen stories about women-as-victims, trapped between their circumstances and their aspirations. Both operas draw inspiration from literary sources – a Henrik Ibsen play, a Thomas Hardy short story – but neither works as music drama.
The Lady from the Sea offers obvious operatic potential in the enveloping symbolism of the sea and the romantic fantasies of a woman trapped in a dutiful marriage. Strachan furnishes Armstrong with singable lines but flawed dramaturgy. Her libretto follows Ibsen too closely, with a welter of characters and sub-plots sapping energy from the central love-triangle. Armstrong starts with an overture promising turmoil beneath a placid surface, but as soon as voices enter, the score dissolves into minimalist cliché and the sort of lyrical mood music Armstrong composes with enormous success for the cinema. He refuses to do what opera does best – explore a character’s psychological/emotional state. Lines such as “the tide inside me” pass for nothing, and the mysterious Stranger’s entrance, vaguely reminiscent of Wagner’s Dutchman, is a non-event.
The saving grace of Harry Fehr’s period staging, designed by Yannis Thavoris, is the oceanic video imagery of Finn Ross’s projections. Claire Booth’s spoilt Ellida loses the battle for our sympathy to Mark Milhofer’s solicitous Wangel. The orchestra negotiates Armstrong’s passive platitudes on auto-pilot.
It seems even more divorced from the stage action in Watkins’ music for In the Locked Room, which strands Harsent’s poetic, pacy libretto in a sea of sweet-nothings. With just four characters, the scale of the piece is right, but neither Watkins’ score nor Michael McCarthy’s staging differentiate between reality and imagination, leaving a hard-worked cast with little to show for their efforts.
In Ghost Patrol, the orchestra under Michael Rafferty finally gets something seriously dramatic to play – and Matthew Richardson’s production turns a chamber setting into grand opera, virtuosically designed by Samal Blak and vividly acted by James McOran-Campbell, Nicholas Sharratt and Jane Harrington. Welsh’s harrowing story, summed up in the line “Only the dead have seen the end of war”, lays bare the lasting trauma of military action, which MacRae drapes in a score as sophisticated as it is soulful – beauty and pain indivisible.