'Revolutions' at the Royal College of Music | Live Review

Colin Clarke
Tuesday, July 2, 2024

The Royal College of Music presents six new operas in collaboration with Cornwall-based Tête à Tête.


Six new operas in one is an ambitious thing, and brilliantly delivered by the Royal College of Music and the Cornwall-based opera production team from Tête à Tête. The two first collaborated back in 2012 with four operas based on Great Expectations. Several other events followed, including sets of operas on Frankenstein, Crime and Punishment, and Hogarth. The operas here are by RCM students, and present pieces set in places and times of turbulence (‘Revolutions’), ranging across Paris, London, Norfolk, Ukraine and Yekaterinburg. Although not chronologically presented, the dates of these pieces on the subject of ‘Revolutions’ span the time of Nicholas II’s Russia to the UK of today.

This is a huge undertaking: although elements of sets can remain constant between operas, the amount of scenographical manipulation seems immense. That waiting times felt just right is testament to the organisation here. Adversity was defeated (Laura Aherne walked her roles with substitutions by Alexandra Dunaeva and Maryam Wocial) to reveal an evening of six composers, each of individual voice. Contemporary opera can easily become nondescript, and there was little of that here; there is clearly something very fine afoot in the higher echelons of the RCM to produce students like this. I have heard far worse from so-called ‘established’ contemporary composers.

Zhen Liu and May Abercrombie in The Drifterman by Connie Harris | Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou

Bill Bankes-Jones' direction was spectacularly inventive, his use of split stages perfect; designs by Sarah Jane Booth seemed perfectly aligned with subject matter throughout.

An opera centred on time clearly has huge musical potential. For Airtime, Ed Driver (a student of Kenneth Hesketh) joined forces with librettist Samir Chadha in a surrealist–magical tale set in early 20th-century Paris. A pneumatic clock network is powered by the respiration of Philippe N du Lum (the ‘Regulator of Time’). A split stage meant the ‘breather’ was on top. When Philippe’s wife Marie (Lily Mo Browne) leaves him, rhythmic regularity is interrupted. Despite attempts at meditation, time itself is distorted, causing chaos; a Parisian radio station has an emergency, requiring a conductor for their orchestra: which will be Philippe himself.

Driver’s work with metrics is fascinating, but the score is far more than rhythmic/temporal sleight-of-hand. Alexandra Francis excels as Anne (the Radio Presenter), while tenor Peng Tian as the radio boss Pierre is strong and confident; two names to watch. James Emerson as Philippe exudes stage presence, immersed in his character.

Charlotte Clapperton and Richard Decker in Church on the Blood by Jasmine Morris | Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou

From mechanistic writing to the ethereal, quasi-atemporal atmospheres of Jasmine Morris’ Church on the Blood (Morris is her own librettist). On one level this is spooky high beauty, a tale of a royal family trapped in a house on a hot summer’s night encased in Morris’ enchanting sound world. Morris’ linear writing, too, is gloriously flowing. Maryam Worcial’s pure yet almost creamy voice suits the Tsar’s daughter Anastasia Romanov’s long lines perfectly. She is a hypnotic narrator; around her lines, Morris’ instrumental writing punctuates, comments, underscores. Utterly brilliant; and a triumph of a performance: Alexandra Dunaeva sang the role of Maria Romanov, with Laura Aherne walking the role. Fine, strong male contributions from Richard Decker, Joel Robson and Gabriel Tufail Smith carried the final scene.

The order of operas was carefully considered; after that compelling bleakness, Jasper Dommett’s Fanny and Stella’s Last Day Out (libretto Jessica Walker) took us to a marvellously reconstructed Palm Court world. To write in a Modernist fashion, include tonalist asides and set pieces, and to retain wit is no mean feat, but Dommett succeeds. A cross-dressing Ted Day as Fanny and Eyre Norman as Stella excelled, propelled by the stage’s riot of colour. The simultaneous juxtaposition of a tonal layer within a more atonalist aesthetic was magnificently negotiated; conductor Michael Rosewell’s clarity of beat and clear score knowledge was a prime factor here and in the entire evening’s success. Humour and pathos mingle, too in the final scene (I won’t spoil it).

Alexandra Francis in Airtime by Ed Driver | Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou

Post-interval, The Drifterman (Connie Harris, composer/librettist) took us to the world of the last of the Norfolk herring fishermen (‘Driftermen’). The simple setting, a boat jutting out from a sea-blue curtain with a piercing light, enabled the music to achieve maximal impact; superb lighting from Colin Eversdijk. Harris' use of folkish material was incredibly poignant, while the darkness of the setting reflects the darkness of the drifterman’s soul, leading to a confession brought on by the fear of who (or what) might be around the boat. Harris laudably knows that less is more and hones her materials to perfection. Bass Zhen Liu is magnificent as Danny Dry (the drifterman), while May Abercrombie sings with razor accuracy and a knife-edge tone as the drifterman’s grandson, Billy.

Ukranian composer Alisa Zaika offered  I (Romance), acing as her own librettist on a 1924 novella by Mykola Khvylovy. The story is experienced through the eyes of a KGB agent, known only as ‘I’; the composer explores the protagonist’s moral struggles. A hammer and sickle against a white backdrop forms the setting: Soviet government officials populate the stage’s upper stratum; a peasant woman below (‘Mother’) is equated with the Virgin Mary. Again, a split stage is used effectively, and a reference to Theosophy places the action nicely. The staging is phenomenal, the lighting again impressive. The ‘Mother’ counterpoints the male voices nicely, stunningly delivered by mezzo Amber Reeves; hers were the finest moments of Zaika’s score.

The final opera offers a glimpse of a dystopian future. Jasper Eaglesfield’s The Anthem, to a libretto by Harry Davies, is certainly current, and includes the challenge of writing a new National Anthem (the current one is also heard, on a lonely solo violin, before the orchestra goes nuts). This has the largest cast, and the stage space is used with virtuosity. Technological challenges are many, and realised with real stage virtuosity. Benedict Munder, who plays the opportunist political opponent, has a huge voice. Against the televisual commentary and shenanigans, Nicholas Lear (former Master of the King’s Music) and his wife the journalist Imogen, enact a domestic scene. Kathleen Ferrier Awards finalist Richard Decker as Lear is a counter-tenor star of the future, while mezzo Anastasia Koorn is a distinguished Imogen. But of all the operas, this is the one that is at heart a team effort, and it was magnificently realised.

Bill Bankes-Jones' crystal-clear direction of these six operas mean each opera’s identity was beautifully maintained; talking of “crystal clear,” the orchestra maintained phenomenal concentration under Rosewell’s impeccable direction. At the present moment, it is Morris and Harris I would actively seek out, but here are six fine talents. In a bleak time (the dystopia of The Anthem felt a touch too real), the future of opera is bright.

Revolutions was live-streamed from the Royal College of Music on 28 June and can be watched here.

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