TO TRANSLATE the writings of the Roman Catholic poet and artist David Jones into a staged drama, let alone a full-scale opera, requires a remarkable feat of insight and sensitivity.
Jones’s writings are often dense and richly layered, liberally laced with neologisms, rooted in Celtic folklore as much as underscored by Christian allusion and biblical echoes, and by a level of intensity one might compare with T. S. Eliot (who published Jones for Faber & Faber) or William Empson.
Jones’s long poem In Parenthesis in many repects classes as an epic. W. H. Auden considered it the best book ever written about the First World War. Jones’s epic retelling of the sufferings, but also the hopes and dreams, of a company battling through up to its Armageddon-like destruction at the Battle of the Somme is captured vividly and inspiredly in David Pountney’s world-première production for Welsh National Opera, now celebrating its 70th anniversary. Pountney is a master of staging sad cortèges (what Jones elsewhere aptly dubs “Lazarus figures”); here, too, these play an important part.
The idea for such an opera originated with the librettists David Antrobus and Emma Jenkins: both deeply versed in the intricacies of Jones’s sometimes elusive verse, they have pared down his intricate text to a manageable sequence of scenes easily intelligible to the average listener, by concentrating more on the more direct, chatty narrative element of In Parenthesis while at the same time generously littering it with Jones’s more elaborate terminology: “I can see the bowels of the trees”; “swords ring in mothers’ hands”; “My little flock, my armed bishopric”; or the poignant “You will be knitted in the texture of the land” — foreseeing the soldiers’ impending deaths.
Jones’s text swings from the serene and sublime: “There is a kind of blessedness”; “the lily-white boys clad all in green” to the grimly revolting: “You can hear the rat of no-man’s land weasel out his workings — scrat, scrat”. “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen”, sung by the German soldiery at Christmas, metamorphoses into something akin to a passionate Welsh hymn, as does a skilfully woven arrangement of “Jesu, lover of my soul”; and, in an arresting moment, the ceremonial distribution of bread, cheese, and tobacco offers moving allusions to the Last Supper.
Robert Innes Hopkins has produced designs that ominously rise and fall to suggest a sinister metallic monstrosity to trench and parapet. One element that adds intensity to the production is a cyclorama (lighting: Malcolm Rippeth) that displays bold scarlet for the battle scenes, a variety of shifting gloomy greys, but then wonderful optimistic displays of sky blues and clouds, especially at the final mythical resurrection sequence, focused around a majestic intoning, verse by verse, of the Salve Regina, in which Alexandra Deshorties (The Queen of the Woods, entrancingly sung) descends to bless the hapless dead.
There is a lot of Britten (including Peter Grimes) in this marvellous score by Iain Bell, which excels at every point. To my ears, time and again, it sounded not merely proximate, but every bit as good and imaginative as Britten: endless passages for woodwind, not least in the interludes; subtle twists of xylophone; haunting bass clarinet or double bassoon; and eminently good, shrewd structuring. The thing about Bell’s score is that it is so relevant, so apt. And it meshes perfectly with the poignant singing of the male chorus — this is indeed a chorus opera — and the more serene women’s chorus who convert into the ominous and yet somehow reassuring shades of death as they gather the doomed men to their final destiny.
Bell boldly introduces two “chorus” narrator figures that recall Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. Peter Coleman-Wright acted as a kind of master of ceremonies, commenting on the action, but also — from his latter wearing of a shield — suggesting the Celtic analogies that Jones inistently infiltrates into his text.
Amid a beautifully enacted military ensemble, a pair of duets (“Let us look in the eye of a buttercup”; “She stalks the land with strumpet confidence”) were enticingly performed, and the veteran baritone Donald Maxwell created a striking older soldier who might have been from Billy Budd.
The evening’s triumph, however, together with the vivid playing of the WNO orchestra under Carlo Rizzi, was the wonderful enaction of Jones’s invented hero, Private John Ball, to whom the young tenor Andrew Bidlack, a strong actor, brought a miraculous passion, patent intensity, and vocal beauty. This was an enchanting performance of a superlative new opera.
The opera is at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London, tonight. It will also be streamed on The Opera Platform at 7 p.m., and then available to view online for free for six months. Then it will be screened at selected venues in Wales: Pontio, Bangor, 3 July; Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, 6 July; Theatr Gwaun, Fishguard, 9 July; The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, 16 July; Theatr Colwyn, Colwyn Bay, 22 November.