Sunday 3 March 2019

Robin Hood, The Opera Story, 27 February 2019 (world premiere)

Bussey Building, Peckham

The Merry Men (Oliver Brignall, Cliff Zammit Stevens, Nicholas Merryweather)
Images: Robert Workman

Robin Hood – Nicholas Merryweather
Joanna – Lorna Anderson
Marian – Siân Cameron
Little John – Oliver Brignall
Will Scarlett – Cliff Zammit Stevens
The Boy – William Barter-Sheppard

Polly Graham (director)
April Dalton (designs)
Claire Childs (lighting)

Berrak Dyer (conductor)

The Opera Story has given birth to a new opera by a young composer and young creative team each year in Peckham since it was founded, three years ago. Unable to attend previous productions, I was eager to hear what was made of Robin Hood, with libretto by Zoe Palmer and Rebecca Hurst, and score by Dani Howard. As with so many essays in the genre from Jacopo Peri’s Dafne onwards, an existing story has been taken and modified. Intrinsically, the idea has much to recommend it: delving beneath the surface of the legend to ask whether Robin Hood and his merry men really were – are – what they seem.

And so, Palmer, Hurst, Howard, and director Polly Graham present a contemporary (to us) political fable, in which a Bullingdon-style group of male politicians in tweeds profess concern for the poor and yet do something quite different; or so it initially seems. At a certain point, it became difficult (at least for me) to grasp quite what drives the plot. Is it that these were essentially posh boys (men-children)? Is it destruction to the environment, the Greenwood, threatened by property developer, Joanna, and defended by Robin’s sister, Marian? Is it paedophilia, the men having gone into the woods and killing a passing child, Joanna’s? Or is it (homosexual) love, Little John at a couple of points having declared himself Robin’s lover? There is nothing wrong with complexity, of course, with themes that intertwine; far from it. For the first two of the three acts, I found the libretto suggestive of how such ideas might coexist and conflict; in the third, resolution, such as it was, seemed a little contrived, the whole amounting to less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it would have been better to have retained a little more of the ‘original’, so that the implied comparison and contrast would have meant more.

Marian (Siân Cameron)

Meanwhile, Howard’s score seemed to grow, more impressive in that third act than in what had gone before. Strangely, even bizarrely, tonal – post-minimalist, I suppose – it had seemed content earlier on just to offer a background to what was transpiring onstage, more interesting in the passages where it came closer to Britten in creepy mode, less so when it sounded as though it might have been written for a television series. A greater focus on ensemble writing in the third act paid dividends, though, perhaps indicative of greater confidence and flair acquired through the business of writing. There was no gainsaying the commitment of performances from a fine cast of singers, nor of that from the ten-piece ensemble (string quartet, double bass, flute, clarinet, trumpet, French horn, and percussion), incisively directed by Berrak Dyer. Oddly, the players sounded heavily amplified. Either that, or it was a very peculiar acoustic (always possible!) A pity, I thought.

Perhaps, then, it is better to think of this as a valuable workshop opportunity, from which all – those of us in the audience too – will have learned. Performances were excellent and, if I had my doubts about the work itself, there was certainly promise to be discerned. Whatever one’s thoughts on that, there was insight to be had both into the writing and performance of opera by those at an early stage in their careers and, just as important, into the success of so worthy an initiative. I look forward to seeing – and hearing – what The Opera Story brings us next.