Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The World’s Wife review – an opera of sexually political import at Milton Court

2 May 2023

Carol Anne Duffy’s poetry given new power by Lucia Lucas and Ragazze Quartet.

The World's Wife

The World’s Wife: Lucia Lucas & Ragazze Quartet (Photo: Ash Knotek)

Mid-century Modern is all the rage these days, and Tom W Green’s opera The World’s Wife, taps into the musical equivalent of the style. There’s something about it that puts you in mind of Peter Maxwell Davies’ 1960s music dramas, or Luciano Berio’s vocal works. Green’s compositional techniques for the piece, though, pull in his interest in jazz, and contemporary sound looping techniques, as well as drawing on quotes and inspiration from female composers through the ages (Barbara Strozzi, Clara Schumann, Elisabeth Lutyens). The work’s 21st century credentials are further displayed in its choice of text – 11 of former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s set of 31 poems about women in history and fable, The World’s Wife.

Originally commissioned by the Mavron quartet as a song cycle for soprano and string quartet, it was converted into an opera for its initial 2017 performance. Tuesday’s outing saw the addition of a further layer of gender politics in the work’s adaptation for transgender baritone Lucia Lucas, who shared the stage with the Dutch Ragazze Quartet.

Directed by Jorinde Keesmaat, with scenography by Sammy Van den Heuvel, and dramaturgy by Lalina Goddard, it’s a simple yet powerful production; the five protagonists, dressed in symbolic and provocative red use all of the stage, moving a set of large blocks to portray a house, seating, beds, foxholes, avenues, wells and a dressing table, lit minimally to present a world of stark contrasts. The quartet are full actors in the drama, and when they pick up their instruments to play (which they do without scores) it feels casual and instinctive, as though they are simply using their instruments to speak along with the text delivered by Lucas. Props are minimal yet make their presence felt – water is used throughout, and most symbolically for ‘Pilate’s Wife’, and, in ‘Salome’, Lucas begins to tear up large bags of soil, scattering them over the stage, such that its pungent aroma fills the auditorium.

“There’s something about it that puts you in mind of Peter Maxwell Davies’ 1960s music dramas, or Luciano Berio’s vocal works”

Lucas herself gives a tour de force performance, and Green’s writing allows all of her baritone range to be explored from the deep, rich vibrant delivery of the word ‘wolf’ in ‘Little Red Cap’ through a deliberately strained, mocking tone for ‘Mrs Aesop’, a coquettish cabaret style for ‘Salome’, and some quiet, high, mezza voce work in ‘Medusa’ and ‘Anne Hathaway’. Although there are moments of near-lyricism, much of the vocal delivery is in lengthy passages of quasi-recitative whose twisting lines also augment the impressive demonstration of range and technique. Occasionally, passages are electronically looped so that (particularly in the section ‘Wives Choir Texts’) Lucas either echoes herself, or becomes a kind of polyphonic chorus.

The instrumental music has a sparsity to it, and isn’t always from the full quartet – over the first four numbers, the four instruments gradually join the ensemble, such that the first, ‘Little Red Cap’, is just Lucas and a solo violin. The ‘quotes’ are used sparely: a 19th century feel is added to ‘Queen Herod’ and ‘Mrs Icarus’, or a Baroque vibe to ‘Medusa’, all are slightly – if a little obviously – mutated through notes sliding into dissonance.

It’s a piece that you want to like, but can’t quite, and the final take away is that it is more impressive than beautiful. Politically, its message is right on the nose (albeit that the newly added section at the end – in which, over a swirl of misty looped strings, we hear snippets of dialogue from each of the performers about their gender and sexuality – while necessary and powerful, slaps on with a trowel the messages that Duffy’s text in the context of this performance has been painting with a fine brush). The performances are eloquent and, at times, breathtaking; the production has a powerful impact on the senses; the messages around women’s roles are necessary, topical and cogent; Duffy’s text is brilliant – it is sharp, observant, witty, and, above all the work of a poet who is mistress of her craft. And yet; and yet. Although the music is clever, it fails to inspire; you become weary of the long, angular, directionless lines of recitative that make up so much of the vocal work – notwithstanding their accomplished delivery. The historical pastiches are artful, but always feel a little too forced and bolted on. In the end, ironically (or, perhaps appositely), it is the music – a male contribution to the endeavour – that is found wanting.

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The World’s Wife review – an opera of sexually political import at Milton Court