Among the decaying beams and crumbling masonry of Wilton’s Music Hall it is easy to lose oneself in the distant time frame of some fictional world. Opera does not feature here often, but over the weekend the venue hosted performances of Nicola LeFanu’s one-act Dream Hunter, which was getting its first London showing.
The intimate scale of the piece made it a good fit. LeFanu employs only four singers and a select instrumental ensemble numbering seven – just enough to flesh out her supernatural tale of a swift, verismo-like killing in 19th-century Corsica (even if everything else about the performance suggested the opera’s setting could be anytime and anywhere).
As the opera only lasts around an hour, a curtain-raiser was needed. Neither of the two purely instrumental pieces chosen was particularly apposite: the perfectly judged poise of Libby Larsen’s Trio in Four Movements for flute, viola and harp recalled the impressionist sound-world of Ravel, while Annea Lockwood’s Monkey Trips is a tiresome slice of performance art that had the performers goofing around like nine-year-olds.
The atmosphere created by Dream Hunter was immediately very different from either. Young Catarina lives a secluded life in a farmhouse with her father and sister and finds escape from the frustrations of her daily existence only in her dreams, like Janácek’s Kátya Kabanová. Here, though, there is a further dimension to the story in the threatening nature of her visions. She foresees the death of a man she despises, but does she also cause it? LeFanu’s little chamber ensemble (smaller than Britten’s in The Turn of the Screw) encapsulates these different elements with pinpoint skill – the mystery, the danger, the repressed longings.
The short opera generally uses its time well, even if John Fuller’s libretto gets stuck for a while on the lowly position of women in Corsican society. Charmian Bedford responded to the music of Catarina’s rapturous dreaming with a nicely lyrical quality. Though Brian Smith Walters was over-stretched by the tenor role, Jeremy Huw Williams was a strong Domenico and Caryl Hughes made the most of sister Angela’s defining solo. Odaline de la Martinez conducted Lontano in LeFanu’s atmospheric score. Dream Hunter is a well-made, modest little opera. Perhaps music colleges might give it a look?