Weir: Blond Eckbert with English Touring Opera at the Aldeburgh Festival | Live Review

Hattie Butterworth
Monday, June 10, 2024

Influences of Film Noir and Romantic art brought a fascinating reading of Judith Weir's 1994 opera to open the Aldeburgh Festival


It’s a familiar dream to up sticks and move to a secluded hut in the mountains. Though the psychological reasons for doing so, and ensuing reality, can be far from the idyllic vision created by Instagram and Pinterest.

For this reason, there are almost too many layers on which you could read the story of Blond Eckbert. With a libretto by the composer herself, Judith Weir’s 1994 opera (seen here in its 2005 ‘pocket’ version) we encounter the solitary lives of Eckbert and his wife Berthe, living together in the mountains.

Flora McIntosh as Berthe, Simon Wallfisch as Blond Eckbert and Aoife Miskelly as A bird | Photo: Richard Hubert-Smith

The story is by German Romantic writer Ludwig Tieck, and explores the blurring of lines between the supernatural and paranoia. On the face of it, it’s short (just over an hour in length) and fairly simple: women tells life story, husband’s friend knows more about it than he should, husband kills friend because he seems creepy, husband discovers his wife is his sister and goes insane.

Beyond this, though, are questions about solitude, psychology, paranoia and relationships. There is also the perspective of a bird present, introduced by Weir’s libretto, revealing the concept of Waldeinsamkeit the feeling of being alone in the forest. Here is another perspective from which we witness the drama, holding questions of nature, and its deeper meaning.

For Robin Norton-Hale’s production, the Eckberts’ ‘castle’ is a Scandi tiny house, or converted ‘bothy’, complete with glass walls and wooden paneling. Act 1 occurs in this one room, beginning with the Bird (a vocally agile Aoife Miskelly) giving its eponymous call accompanied by the nature sounds in the orchestra.

It’s a static reading of the first act, set almost exclusively in the one room. This decision felt it was leading up to place focus on Berthe’s aria, but the idle smoking, pacing and reflecting didn’t entirely chime with Weir’s score. The longer orchestral interludes required more tension on stage at points, and left a confusion in the air.

Time in the Eckberts' world moved differently, with Jamie Platt’s lighting suggesting various points within the day, with a captivating purple hue appearing for the Bird’s aria. Miskelly’s Bird, an agile storyteller, brought humour and pleasing clarity with her rhyming couplets and playful energy.

William Morgan as Hugo with Simon Wallfisch as Blond Eckbert | Photo: Richard Hubert-Smith

By Act 2, we were fully within Norton-Hale’s ‘Film Noir’ influences. The eerie astaticism became a downward spiral. Nature appears blocked-off, with white blinds turning the Scandi house into what felt at first like an abandoned burger van, then revealing itself as a lightbox, behind which the shadows of Eckbert’s hallucinations brought a chilling terror to the story. The beginning of overthinking in Eckbert was masterfully acted by Simon Wallfisch, whose enigmatic emotional life unraveled with startling terror.

The set, designed by Eleanor Bull, was shadowed by what Norton-Hale says was a Turner-influenced mountainous backdrop, with three thick tree trunks to the right of the stage ‘celebrating the beauty and majesty of nature, but shot through with awe and terror’. The house’s setting felt eerily claustrophobic, with wooden slats and white blinds that manipulated the size of the space, becoming smaller as the inner world of the characters dislocated.

The cast showcased vocal prowess with impeccable musicality and intonation. Flora McIntosh as the traumatised Berthe brought great strength to her Act 1 aria, telling her life story with intimate beauty. The listening Walter, William Morgan later becoming Hugo, then the Old Woman brought a clear tenor voice to all three roles with striking resonance.

Weir’s score is full of vibrant rhythmic complexity and timbral interest, with the orchestra of the English Touring Opera under Gerry Cornelius driving this brave reading with full force. Special mention must go to Emily Stephens on oboe and Milo Harper on harp, whose solos interacted effortlessly with the drama on stage. Some harsher and often messy intonation in the violins made a dent in an otherwise stellar ensemble. With just two on each string part, a connective energy and ringing intonation is paramount, but wasn’t focused enough on this occasion.

Touring the production in the autumn, it’s heartening that English Touring Opera will bring the ingenuity of Weir’s opera to a wider audience. In spite of subtle confusions, this cast and creative team have produced a show with great thought and impact.

Blond Eckbert is on tour with English Touring Opera from 5 October - 16 November |

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