Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Aurora @ Bury Court Opera, Bentley

21, 23 February 2019

With the performances presented in a converted barn, and dining constituting part of the event, Bury Court Opera provides a summer opera experience in the middle of winter. The barn seats just a few hundred, and one of the venue’s great selling points is its intimacy. However, in the case of its latest offering, the world premiere of Noah Mosley’s Aurora (with libretto by Elisabetta Campeti) the music, singing and staging all feel so extraordinary that it could be presented in a space ten times the size and still comfortably make the grade. Nevertheless, to experience the work on such a beautifully small scale feels particularly revelatory.

The story is based on a Northern Italian folktale in which the daughter of King Doleda is suffering from a grave and mysterious illness. The King, in an attempt to cure her, enlists the help of a Wild Woman who watches the Princess sing to the Full Moon, and tells him she is suffering from ‘The Illness of the Night’. She says it can be cured by absorbing the power of Dawn and teaches the Princess its secret spell. Once she is better, however, the Wild Woman instructs her to stop reciting the spell as its continued use would remove Dawn’s power from those who really needed it and thus hurt the Spirits of Nature. Both the Princess and King, however, fear that if she ceases she will relapse, and also believe that their status entitles her to use it, and so she carries on.    

This angers the Wild Woman and all of nature as Dawn has lost the power to produce the dew that feeds the River Spirits. The Mountain Witch then captures the Princess and commands her to say the counter spell, but, recognising that the Witch wants the power for herself, she refuses. She is consequently chained to a rock, and believes she is dying, but when she finally accepts her condition she cries ‘for the first time in my life, I know who I am’. At this the River Spirits revive her with the dew that has reappeared since she stopped saying the spell and, thanking her for protecting them from the Witch, they tell her that true love is on its way. She subsequently meets the Exiled Prince who was banished from his kingdom in the Dolomite Mountains for rejecting belligerence (she had previously passed over his older brother, the foppish but brutal Prince) and they fall in love with a message of joy and peace in their hearts.

Mosley’s score is a thing of wonder, as it combines some of the lushness and lyricism of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Italian opera with the mysticism and gravitas of German Romanticism. Alongside this, however, an enormous number of other influences are revealed and styles introduced. For example, there are playful elements so that some of the music does not seem so far removed from the type of thing that Noel Coward might have sung at the piano, while the rhythms and momentum of some of the chorus parts seem reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan. In addition, the moment at which a Groundhog presents the Princess with a gem that represents nature sees the music convey the same sense of revelation and release that is found in The Nutcracker following the defeat of the Mouse King.

Two years ago Bury Court Opera presented the world premiere of Mosley’s Mad King Suibhne. The score for that seemed grounded in the Irish folk tradition, with the diffuse nature of the music on display reminding us that that tradition is not one single entity. If, as a result, the opera felt as if it represented ‘all’ Irish folk music, Aurora feels as if it encapsulates an enormous amount of the Western operatic tradition. It does not, however, seem derivative because the sheer variety of music on offer, which is exceedingly beautiful and highly moving, has been crafted so well that the resulting creation feels extremely original, and indeed unique.

The set and costume designs are also immensely skilful. Aylin Bozok, who directed Lakmé for Opera Holland Park in 2015, has introduced a minimalist aesthetic, which works for a variety of reasons. First, when the stage is small and resources relatively limited, designer Holy Pigott’s use of simple surfaces and shapes to fill the space is perfect. Second, it enables the chorus, who are dressed in exquisite ‘Pierrot’ costumes, to adopt a persona that combines the commedia dell’arte tradition with modernism as the stylised movements hint just a little at mechanisation, or even dysfunctionalism. There is also immaculate attention to detail so that when the gem is first presented it is black, but later on it is shown to be white having become, increasingly like the Great Barrier Reef, bleached of its ability to support life.

The singing from the young cast is notably accomplished, with Isolde Roxby proving exceptional as the Princess as her lyrical yet sensitive soprano is put to excellent use in conveying the various stages that the character goes through across the drama. The role of the Exiled Prince is far smaller, but is sung with consummate skill by Dominic Bowe, while Katherine Aitken is extremely compelling as the Wild Woman. Andrew Tipple as the King successfully captures the sense of a man who wishes kings to be more powerful than planets or nature, and yet also genuinely cares for the wellbeing of his daughter. The countertenors Magid El-Bushra and Jean-Max Lattemann excel as the Prince and Mountain Witch respectively, with one of the entrances of the latter sending the same chill down the spine as the final appearance of the Commendatore is capable of doing.

The orchestra, conducted by Mosley himself, is extremely fine and often achieves a level of lushness that one would imagine could only ever come from a larger ensemble. This is to be the last season of Bury Court Opera, but we can certainly hope that it is only the beginning for Aurora, which deserves to be seen a lot more. If the festival’s very final opera, The Turn of the Screw, comes anywhere near to the same standard of presentation as this, it will definitely be worth seeing.

The Turn of the Screw will appear on 9, 14 and 16 March. For further details and tickets visit the Bury Court Opera website.

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