A wise child
06/23/2000 - and 24, 26, 28, June, 1 July 2000
Param Vir Ion
Janet Suzman (Narrator), Gary Magee (Hermes), Alexander Mayr (Ion), Rita
Cullis (Creusa), David Barrell (Old servant), Nuala Willis (Pythia), Ann
Archibald (Athene), Catherine May, Anna Wood, Rebecca Sharp, Louise Mott,
Ailsa Cochrane (chorus)
David Parry (conductor), Steven Pimlott (director)
Advertised as "a staged concert with narration", this performance of Param
Vir's new opera, with a libretto by David Lan closely based on Euripides'
play, consisted of the scenes that were complete, in a basic staging linked
by a narration read by Janet Suzman.
Euripides, particularly in his strange later plays, is the onlie begetter
of the tragi-comic romance with lyric episodes that today is called opera.
He is also famously responsible for the type of the excessively vengeful
heroine whose death (after mayhem) is the climax of the drama. Ion,
with its high proportion of lyric and choral material, and its seduced and
murderous heroine, is an obvious work to convert directly to an opera.
Param Vir argues (reasonably in terms of his musical style and approach)
that he does not compose in any national tradition, but it is also amusing
how closely the brightly coloured polytheistic world and song-and-dance
episodes of the Ion play resemble those of Hindu theological movies.
Not to mention that lingam-like omphalos, surrounded with flowers.
As Hermes relates in the prologue, Creusa, the queen of Athens, was years
ago seduced and abandoned by Apollo. She exposed the resulting child, but
Apollo had Hermes carry him to Delphi, where he was raised as a servant in
the temple. He is now a cheerful and pious young man whose main worry is
whether to kill the birds that crap on the temple marble. Creusa and her
husband Xouthos come to Delphi to try to find out why they cannot have
children, and Creusa meets Ion. Xouthos meanwhile hears from the Pythia
that Ion is his son. When he plans to take him home to Athens to make him
his heir, Creousa, furious and jealous, tries to kill Ion. He is rescued by
a lucky accident and tries to kill Creousa in revenge. The Pythia produces
the exposed infant's cradle, Creousa recognises it and tells them what the
tokens in it are, and they acknowledge each other and go off to Athens
without telling Xouthos that Ion is not really his son. Where they all live
happily ever after, because having an Athenian mother is what is really
Vir's approach to setting Lan's lucid and attractive translation is far
closer to Monteverdi than to Bollywood. He retains the forms in the play,
speeches, scenas, arias, duets and choruses, and sets all but the choruses
simply, with musical lines that work with the rhetoric of the text. (The
duet in which Ion and Creusa joyfully accept that they are son and mother
owes more than an little to "Pur tì miro".) The choruses have simple
staggered layering of voices in some places, but like the rest, no fancy
word setting or ornaments. The orchestral support for the singers is often
quasi-minimal, and the orchestra also provides fanfares and melodrama. The
narratives are painless and the scenas and arias are grandly if
conventionally operatic, particularly Creousa's big scena when her anger at
her husband for adopting Ion and her anger about her lost child merge in
The decision to present a concert version of a work in progress was made
close to the performance at Aldeburgh a couple of weeks ago when the
complete music hadn't arrived, so the performers really didn't have much
chance. But Rita Cullis still managed to deliver a striking and powerful,
nearly tragic, heroine in Creousa, which suggested that there is potential
for a proper opera here. Alexander Mayr was cute as Ion. His singing was
consistently adenoidal, though he had some fine moments, particularly his
moving lament for his unknown mother over his infant cradle. Garry Magee
was a suitably demonic Hermes, and the chorus was vocally luxurious and
impressively choreographed. The orchestra seemed mechanical at times, and
the singers were occasionally drowned out.
Vir certainly brings out intensity, even horror, in what is often regarded
as a romantic comedy in spite of its mirror-image relationship to the
Oedipus situation. It's difficult to judge the overall pace and dramatic
force of his opera when parts of it are missing. The ninety minutes of
music seemed close to being enough tonight, and there was still a fair bit
of text to set, including two more narrative speeches. But what is there
showed a good sense of drama within scenes, and an economical approach to
old-fashioned operatic effects that are entirely appropriate for the play.
The full work, with appropriate spectacle, will be worth a look.