‘Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.’ The Brexit mantra seems to fit perfectly with this new opera by Howard Moody, in which families are rent asunder, communities are destroyed and ‘undesirables’ banished offshore. Anna Moody’s libretto takes the story from when the dictator Alex (Michael Wallace) is confronted by his daughter Elin (Nazan Fikret) as to why he banished his own mother along with a sizeable proportion of their island’s population. No real answer is given – they were just ‘other’ – and it is on this fragile view, and on the constant presence of the sea, that the work is based.
Glyndebourne has a distinguished history of taking community opera seriously – indeed, as the new Artistic Director Stephen Langridge points out, there were people on the stage tonight who had performed in the house’s first youth opera two decades ago. The basic idea is that members of the local community link with Glyndebourne Youth Opera to form the chorus, with all ages from 11 to 71, and they are joined in the main parts by young (and not so young) professional singers. It’s a wonderful idea, and it must be inspiring for aspirant professionals just to be on stage with superb performers such as Louise Winter, who sings the role of Elin’s grandmother.
The work itself takes its inspiration from the sea as well as various styles of music including jazz and blues, and it incorporates on-stage players including solo violin and guitar (Anna Cooper and Adrian Zolotuhin) and the more obscure but fascinating instruments of the Kora and Udu (Sura Susso, Buster Birch.) Of course, it is only to most of our South-East English ears that such instruments are ‘obscure’ – the Kora, in particular, has a poetically beautiful sound in Sura’s hands – he is one of its leading exponents, and many of the audience must have come away wanting to hear more.
The opera which came most strongly to mind as an influence on Agreed is Peter Grimes, in the evocation of the varying moods of the sea as well as the narrative of outcasts shunned by society. The music is often beautiful, if at times a little lacking in definition, and it was played with absolute mastery by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Glyndebourne Youth Orchestra under the baton of the composer. Both they and the on-stage players gave devoted support to the singers.
The community chorus is the real ‘star’ of these events, and one can only marvel at how these mothers, teachers, shop assistants, doctors, nurses and so many other local residents, can manage to commit to such a high level of performance alongside their ‘regular’ lives. Clad in what looked as if the nearest branch of ‘Fat Face’ had been raided for this season’s sea-side-y, aquamarine garb, and expertly moved around by Caitlin Fretwell Walsh, this chorus sang with real commitment and gusto, even its younger members clearly relishing the music.
The principals were led by Nazan Fikret’s clear-voiced, sympathetic Elin, and Tom Scott-Cowell’s finely sung Korimako. These are two really promising young singers who have already begun to establish themselves in various houses, and it’s safe to assume that we will be hearing more from them. The use of the counter-tenor voice is an inspiration here, since it not only suggests the ‘otherness’ of the character but returns us to the notion of that voice type as the heroic centre of an opera.
Michael Wallace is a member of the Glyndebourne Chorus with many varied roles to his credit, and he blustered most convincingly as the leader who loses everything. Louise Winter is the best known of the professional singers, and she gave a characteristically nuanced, beautifully sung performance as Maya. Elin’s ‘spirit’ was mesmerizingly danced by Ellyn Hebron. The jazz vocalist Zara McFarlane sang the role of Kronos, commenting on the action as it unfolds.
Simon Iorio’s production, with designs by Cordelia Chisholm and lighting by Paul Pyant, evokes the sea in all its moods from stormy to peaceful, using a simple palette of silver, blue and white, and creating poetic atmosphere with simple props such as the coracle-like boat in which Korimako arrives and departs, and delicate discs to delineate the sun and moon. It’s a beautiful stage picture, done with skilful simplicity, and admirably suited to the work.