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With some help from the renowned Welsh National Opera and others, the smaller Music Theatre Wales is touring a new opera around Britain and they have just called in at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio for two nights. In principle, this is a very good thing: the Welsh National has mostly played standard repertoire, being the Welsh equivalent of Covent Garden, and there is room for a smaller, more specialised Welsh company to try on the ever-growing Welsh non-standard repertoire. After all, the Welsh are famous for producing first-class singers, and they deserve at least some low-budget attention for their native composers too – featuring specifically Welsh operatic libretti, and a chamber orchestra that can be as conventional or as oddball as you like.
The composer of House of the Gods is Lynne Plowman, now based in Wales; she is also a flautist. Its librettist is Martin Riley, whose Welsh connections are more tenuous. Although I could detect no special favouring of the flute in Plowman’s music, it serves the libretto well enough, mostly in terms of neo-William Walton. (Walton’s conventional operas were generally flops, as against Michael Tippett’s eccentrically inspired successes.) The English libretto it serves is Welsh as could be, for all its references to mythical Irish gods and heroes: perhaps there aren’t enough ancient Welsh gods to go round, as distinct from their glut of fiery Christian preachers.
Riley’s libretto struck me as low-key and undramatically shaped (as usual, critics were supplied with the text, a praiseworthy Welsh habit).
That was how it seemed in performance, at least: far too many abstractly English and classical references to older mythology, barely relevant to anything we saw here, which was really about Welsh participation in the first world war. In performance, what the libretto recalled much more distinctly was Sean O’Casey’s cross anti-English diatribes. But much of Plowman’s music here sounded as English as could be, pastoral and blandly familial: all domestic problems, insulated from any wider world
No doubt Welsh audiences may recognise hints of resentment at English domination of the Welsh culture, but they don’t amount to much. We had no Welsh “Singer of the Year” here (Bryn Terfel has long outgrown his native scene) but a very competent cast. Outstanding among them were the mildly demonic “Crom” (flamboyant Philip Sheffield, faintly reminiscent of Tim Curry in the immortal Frankenstein film) and Mark Evans as a disillusioned WWI hero – but none of their music allowed them to get far inside their potentially interesting characters. ★★★★☆
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