This should have been Richard Hickox’s valedictory, the triumphant culmination of this Vaughan Williams year.
His presence in spirit was profoundly felt, though. So much so that much of the impact of this performance stems from the elegiac mood that hung over the audience, in shared grief.
In Riders to the Sea a woman whose husband, four sons and father-in-law were drowned, loses two more sons to the sea. The libretto, by JM Synge, is stark and spartan, for these are subsistence fisherfolk. Vaughan William’s orchestral writing, however, is powerfully expressive. Nature is hostile, men are doomed to die, women to mourn. In the music, the sea itself “speaks”.
Orchestrally this is magnificent, huge surges of sound welling upwards and crashing down. The composer even uses a “sea machine” to create extra effects of surf and wind. The voices don’t stand any more chance than the fishermen. Hickox’s recording of this piece shows how abstract sound can evoke far more than voices alone. The voice of the sea adds so much depth and complexity that the music is absolutely integral, more perhaps than in traditional opera.
The Director, Fiona Shaw, is a well known actress, so the staging naturally reflects her background. The opera starts with projections of landscape in the Aran Islands, and longboats hang from the rafters. The drowned man appears in the backdrop, cliffs hang above the stage. As theatre, this is good for it depicts the specifically Irish origins of the play.
The music, though, portrays the ocean as universal, extending both context and deeper meaning. That’s perhaps why several in this audience were openly weeping. Vaughan Williams’ music taps into our emotional reserves, whatever our situation. Few who were at this performance will forget their feelings, long after memories of the staging have faded.
Riders to the Sea is short and compact, but instead of presenting it as written, it was “extended” by adding two completely other pieces of music, without breaks to acknowledge their very different nature. Sibelius’ Luonnotar is one of the most remarkable pieces ever written, a strikingly original masterpiece that can stun an audience into total silence on its own terms.
It’s about the creation of the universe itself, though you’d never guess that from the prosaic programme notes. Perhaps this was deliberate, as was the bland “staging”, as there’s a lot more to Luonnotar than fits in with Riders to the Sea.
Fortunately for this production, Luonnotar isn’t familiar enough that most people would worry. Poor John Woolrich, whose music served as a bridge, possibly unnoticed, between the two masterworks! Framing a stand-alone opera with fundamentally different works is an interesting concept, but it works mainly as theatre and doesn’t really add to the musical experience. Still, it was interesting, and in the circumstances, the audience was focussing on things beyond music and theatre.