Director: Fiona Shaw
Whoever had the original flash of genius to merge Luonnotar and Riders to the Sea is to be warmly congratulated.
The ENO production of Luonnotar, a tone poem, by Sibelius presented a darkly atmospheric version of a Finnish creation myth. The part of the eponymous heroine was sung with such grief and raw anguish by soprano Susan Gritton that it made this a very moving performance. The striking set presented the audience with an imaginatively conceived back projection below the waves filmed in rich greens and blues that gradually zoomed in to reveal minute sea life as seeds of creation, glimpses of hair and a swimming horse as harbingers of a doom to come. Luonnotar stood in a fishing barque suspended vertically above the stage, her flowing costume tumbling to the stage 20’ feet below redolent of a winding sheet and a Christening robe. However as the piece progressed and Luonnotar disrobed, the costume disintegrated both in structure and in power to reveal a skin toned unflattering knee length shift. Having expended yards and yards of fabric on the over garment it was a shame that this skimpy garb could not have extended to Susan Gritton’s ankles making a far more graceful spectacle. Fortunately her voice more than over came such distractions and made the performance of this enigmatic piece a rare treat.
Luonnotar merged seamlessly with a bridging passage by John Woolrich into Riders to the Sea, a dark and brooding piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams. From the opening minutes when we saw Carthleen furtively washing herself, a role admirably played by Kate Valentine, echoing the birth narrative of Luonnotar we realised that Fiona Shaw’s cinematic experience would bring an exciting attention to detail.
The orchestra was ably conducted by Edward Gardner, stepping into the chasm left by the tragically early death of Richard Hickox. Patricia Bardon (Maurya) provided particularly vibrant, emotionally laden singing. Madeleine Shaw (‘A Woman’) gave a well observed, albeit brief performance. Leigh Melrose as Bartley and Claire Booth as Nora sang spirited roles.
The setting on a naturalistic rock outcrop on the Arran coast was wonderfully crafted with a rectangle of light delineating the croft and a back projection of billowing surging clouds evoking the underwater scenes of Luonnotar, the preceding work.
By the end of the performance it was quite hard to make out what was happening on the stage; bringing the lights up just a step or two would have enhanced the drama making the performers more visible whilst not detracting from the spiritual and emotional darkness evoked by the music and the words.
One thing unfortunately that just would not disappear was the miraculous self-supporting ladder that appeared early in the piece like a latter-day Indian rope trick almost central on the stage. For a family who are portrayed as so utterly impoverished the ownership of this brightly glinting piece of equipment seemed incongruous and jarring.
Riders to the Sea presents us with an account of grief and loss. The turning cycle of life is universal and painfully appropriate in the first few wrenching days following Richard Hickox’ sudden death. The emotionally wrenching journey of the conjoined works was so totally involving that I felt the brevity of the evening was a mercy. This is Fiona Shaw’s first operatic directorship; please may it not be her last.
Photos: Clive Barda