Nov 18 2009

Review of Swanhunter

Published by Murray at 10:57 am under Performances

Swanhunter with Opera North

Here is the review of Swanhunter from the Guardian. I even get a mention!

Alfred Hickling, Guardian Monday 16 November 2009 21.30 GMT


Writing opera – or indeed any form of entertainment – for children is often considered a marginal activity. The best a child-friendly composer might hope for would be an opera company to commission a small scale, developmental work that, if successful, might lead to an invitation to the main stage. Curiously, Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton appear to be heading the opposite way. In 2007, Opera North had an enormous success with The Adventures of Pinocchio; a three-hour spectacular with full orchestra, a working Ferris wheel and a 20-foot giant. How to follow that? The answer is with a 50-minute chamber piece performed in Opera North’s studio space.

Dove and Middleton have taken a tale from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, dramatising the journey of a young hero, Lemminkäinen, to the northland to claim a bride “who makes the sun sigh and the moon ache”. But first he must complete a series of dangerous tasks and is unfortunately dismembered, before his grieving mother magically sings him back to life. It’s a perfect tale to be told in music – so perfect in fact that Sibelius has already done it in the symphonic Lemminkäinen suite.

Dove’s music is much leaner than Sibelius’s, which is inevitable with only six instruments in the ensemble. But it gains much of its character from the inspired use of an accordion, a wheezing orchestra in itself, which binds the score together like tightly packed snow.

After the extravagance of Pinocchio, the budget for Clare Whistler’s production has been whittled down to little more than a few polystyrene cut-outs to suggest ice-floes. Andrew Rees sings the taxing tenor role of Lemminkäinen with heroic stamina, despite having succumbed, not entirely inappropriately, to a cold. As his mother, Yvonne Howard’s life-affirming lament may be the most ravishing piece of sustained lyric writing Dove has produced.

Yet the fidget factor is a critical consideration, and for all its subtleties you can’t help wondering if a young audience is more naturally inclined towards the story of a puppet with behavioural issues than a mythic quest for a bride who can make the sun sigh and the moon ache. Swanhunter’s minor success is a result of its modest ambitions. But in an industry usually noted for grandiloquent folly, this feels like a rare instance of an opera company biting off less than it can chew.

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