Opera worthy of England’s first martyr

by
26 May 2009

This life of St Alban is in the true Britten line, says Roderic Dunnett

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OVER the past half-century, Ben­jamin Britten’s three Church Parables and Noyes Fludde have set the pace for church opera. Now, if anything, more substantial, comes a two-act opera in like vein, from a young composer whose musical flair and intellectual energy seem audible in every bar.

Alban, by Tom Wiggall, comes armed with a direct and yet subtle, outwardly monochrome (no sub-plot) and yet cleverly varied libretto (many artful diversions and asides, abetting and never detracting from the action) by the award-winning poet John Mole, whose fluency is given added life by the composer’s individuality and discernment.

This is a serious score. Accord­ingly, Wiggall is not afraid to borrow, or to make jovial allusion in his music to the point of congenial parody. The ghost of Britten is audible not not least in Alban’s long-suffering, all-but-abandoned wife (a resplendent Dominique Thiebaud), who witnesses in bewilderment her husband’s almost overnight, op­timistic conversion; and two splendidly played children (Peter Sequeira, Georgina Thomas), who revisit aspects of Miles, Flora, and Mrs Grose in The Turn of the Screw, at times recalling specific scenes (as in the children’s games).

Musical leitmotifs play a part. The most obvious of these is a melody for oboe and strings, perhaps associated with Alban (Philip Salmon) and his shifting moods and fortunes. The future saint’s conversion — just hours earlier, the family has been honouring its lares et penates — takes place with almost Pauline rapidity, when he shields a priest fleeing the authorities (in an opening that recalls Tosca), who casts himself on the family’s kindness.

In a series of musical passages, part-hymnic, part-Gregorian, part a fusion of both, the composer allo­cates this priest some of the most edifying music of the opera. At first detectably just under the note, Paul Sheehan grew vastly in stature as the opera unfolded.

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There were conscious allusions to the Gospel story as the opera built, in Beckie Mills’s well-disciplined, breathtaking production, towards an onstage execution that was both brilliantly devised and convincing. Bringing that about were a strikingly sung Roman Governor (Des Turner, singing a role that has shades of John Shirley-Quirk), appallingly hen­pecked by his even more stunningly sung wife (Louise Mott), the real wearer of the toga. (A bit hackneyed? Perhaps.)

The costume designer, Ann Hollo­wood, used the device of offsetting principals’ costumes, in forceful azures and crimsons, against beige and brown for the chorus. Her 16-strong team had worked miracles: not one of the cast looked tatty or merely stagey.

From Mole’s libretto, Tom Wig­gall, with the conductor, David Ireson, and the entire single-wood­wind chamber orchestra delivering, had constructed a series of fascinat­ing, intense, sometimes aggressive exchanges, drawing on a wealth of quasi-recitative, arioso, and fledgling aria to drive home the story with imagination and clarity.

The orchestra­tion (careful restraint of brass) is first-rate; the forward momentum and dramatic interest are constantly maintained; and not a bar of the music is crowd-pleasing “tat” or “approachable” dross.

Mills’s beautifully moved chorus — detail, exits, and entrances were mapped out to the letter — was given exciting surges of music to sing, one sequence, amid the hue and cry, verging on a Peter Grimes chase. Mole even concocted a vivid and funny Act II scene for some dreary court lackeys. Tom Forster’s sturdy Roman officer, a sort of local Dixon of Dock Green, declined to do the dirty work, and paid the price. Others were on hand with sicken­ingly less compunction.

There was much more to praise in this top-notch, polished show. If I had a cathedral nave going begging, I would be booking it or staging it — whatever the cost and logistics — tomorrow.

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