Sunday 27 October 2013

Surrey Opera’s fine new production of George Lloyd’s Iernin is a triumph

I was fortunate to have been present at Surrey Opera’s production of George Lloyd’s opera Iernin   at the theatre of Trinity School , Croydon, Surrey, England on Friday 25th October 2013.  

It was the Cornish landscape that truly inspired the 21 year old George Lloyd’s first opera Iernin. Not staged since its première in 1934 and its London run in 1935, George Lloyd's Iernin, based on a Celtic legend inspired by the Nine Maidens stone circle near Penzance, tells the story of a maiden turned to stone by puritanical priests, only to reawaken hundreds of years later and ensnare the heart of a betrothed Cornish nobleman. This is set against the backdrop of a soon to be occupied Cornwall and the struggle of its leader and people to retain their independence from the Saxon overlords

At the time the Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph reported ‘Scenes of great dramatic intensity and moments of lyricism are embodied in the Cornish grand opera, Iernin which was produced for the first time at the Pavilion, Penzance on Monday night.’ The Times music critic, Frank Howes, was present at the first performance and it was his glowing review that enabled it to be transferred to the Lyceum, London where it achieved great success.

The Surrey Opera production has had three performances in Croydon before transferring to St. John’s Hall, Penzance, Cornwall for two more performances on 1st and 2nd November 2013, effectively taking the opera home.

Jonathan Butcher  conducted the chorus and orchestra of Surrey Opera together with a strong cast consisting of Catherine Rogers (Iernin), Edward Hughes (Gerent), Felicity Buckland (Cunaide), Håkan Vramsmo (Edyrn), James Harrison (Bedwyr), Jon Openshaw (Priest), James Schouten (huntsman), Robert Trainer (Saxon thane), Tim Baldwin (old man) and Georgina Perry (little girl).

Producer, Alexander Hargreaves , has seen in the libretto of this opera more than simply a love story but selflessness and love of an ideal, drawing on connections with the composer’s own Second World War experiences. Certainly if one reads the libretto in this context one can see that the librettist, the composer’s father, William Lloyd, must surely have had his own First World War experiences in mind.

Even though the composer may not have had twentieth century dress in mind for his opera set in the 10th century, he would, I know, have approved of the simple but effective stage sets. In Catherine Rogers this production had a first rate Iernin, an extremely taxing role to which she brought her fine voice.

Alexander Hargreaves’ direction provided many fine moments, though, when the huntsmen appear on stage, it was perhaps rather too busy with the chorus too centre stage. I was also not entirely convinced by the modern dress version of the Saxon Thane when he appears early in Act 2. However, these were small matters in this fine production. The orchestra and chorus were first rate in the huntsman scene with a fine horn solo from the principal horn.

There were many musical highlights including a wonderful first Act duet from Edward Hughes (Gerent) and Håkan Vramsmo (Edyrn) as well as Gerent’s following aria ‘Long years ago’. Both these singers showed fine voices as well as great dramatic presence.

The spoken dialogue in Act 2, Scene 1 was particularly effective with Tim Baldwin as the old man, holding this section together brilliantly. In Scene 2 Jon Openshaw made a fine priest, full of presence and stature, also having to sing offstage for an indisposed James Harrison (Bedwyr) who, nevertheless acted his role on stage.

Catherine Rogers brought tremendous strength to her final aria ‘Hear me, thou Shining Power’, finely building the drama in a piece that is by turns affectingly beautiful and dramatic. How she sustained the power and sensitivity was remarkable in this taxing aria. In the transition to the orchestral storm sequence there was some very fine string playing.

Act 3 brought a terrific duet from Catherine Rogers and Edward Hughes with some more fine playing from the orchestra as well as the trio from Felicity Buckland (Cunaide), Edward Hughes (Gerent) and Catherine Rogers (Iernin), so wonderfully done.

Felicity Buckland was a fine Cunaide particularly in the Act 2 ‘What if I have their love’ one of the great arias that she has in this opera and, perhaps the greatest aria in the whole work when, towards the end of the final Act, she sings ‘The spell is passed.’ Into this final scene Director, Alexander Hargreaves, brings soldiers in twentieth century uniforms. Iernin, now returned to her form as a stone, is finally revealed as a war memorial and Gerent as an injured soldier. Whilst not what the composer would have expected, Cunaide had already prepared us for this moment when, in her preceding aria she sang ‘Who willingly gave their breath that you and yours might be free’. I found this scene almost unbearably poignant.

In some ways this production risked the usual controversy over the use of modern dress yet the effect when the end of the final Act arrived surely justified this view. There can be no doubt in all other respects that this production was musically a triumph.

If you are able to get to Penzance for the final two performances you will be assured of a memorable evening.

If you are unable to make the journey then the complete opera conducted by the composer can be obtained from Albany Records UK

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