mon 15/07/2024

The Drummer Boy of Waterloo, Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh | reviews, news & interviews

The Drummer Boy of Waterloo, Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh

The Drummer Boy of Waterloo, Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh

Roles for all, Britten-style, in a children's opera for a major war anniversary

Lucas Evans as 'Eldest Edward' drums the army into battleAnn Barkway

Back in 1949, Britten’s Let’s Make an Opera, with its enduring second part The Little Sweep, blazed a trail for children’s opera in Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall. Little has changed about this generously-sized village institute – a funding appeal for much-needed renovations is under way – and Jenni Wake-Walker’s Jubilee Opera is still waving the banner for music education with works that make the right sort of demands.

The Drummer Boy of Waterloo, marking the bicentenary of that most famous of battles, is the latest.

After Britten, this vital genre didn’t exactly flourish, in the UK at least – Finland has had an extraordinary tradition – but it made a comeback at Glyndebourne, where Drummer Boy’s conductor Lee Reynolds is the Music Director of the Youth Opera, and seems to be flourishing now across the country. The bravery of this newcomer, by Megg Nicol and David Stoll, is that it’s through-composed, with no spoken dialogue, keeps the ensemble of children working throughout, and doesn’t rely on adult opera singers to do more difficut stuff; there’s only one, Peter Brathwaite, admirable as mill owner Mr Lancashire, and in fact, were it not for the virtue of collaboration with a real opera-singer, his role could be taken by one of the teenage boys in the cast since it’s not larger than several of the others.

Scene from The Drummer Boy of WaterlooWe’re in a northern textile mill circa 1815 (pictured right by David Hernon). On their only free afternoon of the week, the children remember Edward Drew, who went off to the Napoleonic Wars to play the drum-signals on the battlefield. The singing of “Sunday” suggests we might be off to La Grande Jatte with Stephen Sondheim’s Seurat, but the songs which follow are more Boublil and Schonberg’s Les Mis in their foursquare style.

Much of the musical interest lies in the links and their orchestration; down in the pit the 11-piece orchestra – another homage to Britten – is led by veteran violinist Kenneth Sillito, who’s witnessed many great things here, not least under the composer’s baton, since he first came to Aldeburgh in 1959. There are other distinguished names in the ensemble, too.

Dramatically, you’re left fretting by the two-thirds mark of the hour-long show when we’ll get to Waterloo, since the mill action predominates. There’s only one short sequence towards the end, Into Battle, when the children balladize Edward’s second career. What happened? The pity of war and the boy-hero’s demise are not made clear – at least if they are, the pitiless acoustics of the Jubilee Hall stage, swallowing up so much of the sound in the wings, means the text can’t often be heard, and the lyrics printed in the programme don’t make it clear.

Scene from The Drummer Boy of Waterloo

The iniquities of child labour do have a voice in the mill scenes, but they’re still just a bit too cosy, more Oliver! than The Little Sweep: Britten managed eerie pathos so well, and there need to be a few more darker shades in this score. Still, it’s unstintingly democratic in its distribution of roles, with three children of different ages playing Edward at different stages of his short life, and only one clear stand-out, William Rose as the foreman Barley (pictured above with Brathwaite); I assume he’s the Will whose testimony is printed in the programme, a veteran of eight years with Jubilee Opera. Otherwise, what’s so impressive is that kids across a wide age-range had memorized a substantial amount of music and got to move around Claire Lyth’s well-dressed set confidently under Lucy Bradley’s direction, with a neat bit of choreography from Kieran Sheehan. It’s an experience they ought to remember for the rest of their lives.

Jubilee Opera is still waving the banner for music education with works that make the right sort of demands


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters