Music Theatre Wales celebrates its big 40th birthday this year, and I’ve been thinking back on some of the productions: the good and the bad, the brilliant and forgettable. Cardiff’s little opera sibling can throw its own weight around, even with Welsh National Opera’s titan grip. Their commitment to new chamber opera is their standout feature; Violet, a co-production with Britten Pears Arts and the London Sinfonietta, might just be one of the highlights of the post-pandemic period.
I arrive at this opera most familiar with the work of its librettist: Alice Birch, best known for Normal People, Lady Macbeth and a turn in Succession. Whilst these TV and film credentials stand out, her time on stage is also noteworthy, now fluttering her way into opera circles. Violet is, in essence, a mystery period drama with intrigue, depth and some F-bombs here and there. Though the end may induce head-scratching, and may even be considered a letdown, there are nods to Lost and other dystopian shows.
In a village, time appears to disappear. An hour is lost one day, five hours during another, and no one understands why; people turn on each other, crops fail and society gradually breaks down. Violet, plagued with depression, is the only one to feel it initially – yet, as time is lost, her depression appears to have floated off. As she is ready to save herself, her husband Felix meets an ugly fate.
Tom Coult’s score is alive in uneasy tensions and discordant suspense along with some sublime vocal writing. The London Sinfonietta shine with quirky, apt choices of a contrabass clarinet, metronomes and tubular bells, the ticking and murmuring never too far away. The music is fairly dense at times, but still attracts a lot of attention thanks to the dynamics of the story. Anna Dennis owns the piece as her own, her sumptuous voice in every bar. Her drone as the other singers chatter on was one of many highlights: everyone wants to hear more of Dennis.
As Felix, Richard Burkhard intimidates with a futile power struggle over the strange goings-on. Laura, here from Frances Gregory, the anxious maid who might just end up safe thanks to Violet. Andrew MacKenzie Wicks, as the Clockkeeper, may know more than he lets on, yet a funny dinner scene shows off his awkward side and genuine bewilderment at the events. The set of Rosie Elnile includes a long table, a looming upside-down tree and a wooden sign telling the time, in the vein of a guillotine.
The sleek costumes of Cécile Trémolières defy any direct historical setting, with ruffs, wellington boots and billowy dresses. Animation by Adam Sinclair blasts into the uncanny and unnerving conclusion, with the green screen videography of Ricardo Markin a vivid sight. Another pleasure came from the sound design from Jasmin Kent Rodgman, yearning bell effects which fermented in the speakers and perfectly soundtracked scene changes.
This heady, intense opera whips away any doubts about post-COVID insecurities and only affirms Music Theatre Wales’ position in music-making.
Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, Wed 8 June
Violet is at Theatr Clwyd, Mold on Sun 19 June. Info: here
words JAMES ELLIS
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