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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)
Almeida Ensemble
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 important.

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 murderous rage.

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.

H.E. Elsom



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