tue 21/09/2021

Holy Sonnets/The Heart's Assurance/A Charm of Lullabies, English Touring Opera online review - darkest hours | reviews, news & interviews

Holy Sonnets/The Heart's Assurance/A Charm of Lullabies, English Touring Opera online review - darkest hours

Holy Sonnets/The Heart's Assurance/A Charm of Lullabies, English Touring Opera online review - darkest hours

Strikingly staged song-cycles of unease by Britten and Tippett

Nursery crimes: Katie Stevenson in 'A Charm of Lullabies'Beki Smith/Britten Pears Arts

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.” John Donne’s Holy Sonnets may summon all his art of wit and paradox to mock that might and dread; still, we sense the abject terror behind the formal acrobatics of the verse. Benjamin Britten wrote his great settings of these great poems after a visit to the liberated Bergen-Belsen camp with Yehudi Menuhin in summer 1945.

A muted howl of anguish flecked with sparks of hope, they make for a mesmerically chilling song-cycle. As sung by tenor Richard Dowling, accompanied by pianist Ian Tindale and dancer Bernadette Iglich, the sequence felt like a granitic centrepiece for the four filmed recitals that English Touring Opera recorded at Hackney Empire late last year and released during January via Marquee TV. 

My colleague Richard Bratby has already saluted the first double-bill of the ETO’s Lyric Solitude season, of Britten’s The Poet’s Echo and Shostakovich’s Romances on British Poetry. Two other programmes showcased sombre-hued and strong-voiced chamber works from Britten and Tippett as both composers reached full maturity in the century’s darkest hour. They took us on vocal journeys through underworlds of loss, loneliness and grief. Tim Van Someren’s direction of the films, and Louie Whitemore’s stage designs, spotlit distanced figures on the bare Hackney stage. Here, castaways of the spirit sang, played and danced their way into the deepest chasms of forsakenness. No, this was hardly escapism to lift us out of lockdown blues. But these striking performances, thoughtfully dramatised, did throw an emotional and artistic bridge between our pandemic privations and the epic sorrows of the mid-20th century. 

For the Holy Sonnets, Bernadette Iglich (who also directed) danced as a silent intermediary between Richard Dowling’s voice and the (consistently fine, poised and spare) piano commentary of accompanist Ian Tindale. Other Lyric Solitude items also introduced a ghostly third performer, designed to embody the emotions and perceptions spun between voice and instrument. In this case, the addition worked. Iglich’s expressive choreography avoided any clunky imitative moves, mimicking the words,  and ran instead along its own track of feeling and gesture. Only at the close, with the ominous passacaglia of “Death be not proud” itself, did singer and dancer join into a couple who stepped together into – and perhaps beyond – the finality of death. Dowling (pictured above with Bernardette Iglich) proved equal at every turn to the awe, horror and exultation of Donne’s words, and to Britten’s musically ardent response to them. If he rose thrillingly to the climactic wonderment of “At the round earth’s imagined corners”, he could also ease back into the elegiac, Schubertian poise of “Since she whom I lov’d hath pay’d her last debt”. 

Another ETO bill paired Tippett’s cycle The Heart’s Assurance with Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies. Tippett too composed these settings of poems by Sidney Keyes and Alun Lewis, young talents lost to the Second World War, from the heart of 1940s darkness; they commemorate a friend who took her own life towards the war’s end. He suggested the subtitle “Love under the shadow of Death”, and the songs audibly wrestle to affirm passages of lyric grace and bliss in the face of gathering doubt and threat. 

Tippett feeds that fear into some virtuosic, even intimidating, writing for the voice. Thomas Elwin mastered this craggily impassioned idiom, even when Tippett sends the tenor tessitura over the top, or into the depths, in a song such as “Compassion”. Less effective, to my mind, was director Iglich’s choice to have Richard Dowling, with his soldier’s bedroll, mirror the songs with his silent movements. Elwin proved a restlessly active physical presence himself – brooding, prowling, even wielding his chair as if it were another wordless “character”. Dowling’s presence as daemon or doppelgänger could feel superfluous, given the music’s smouldering intensity. Still, it did not detract from the peaks of this performance, especially when Elwin flung the wrenching lament of the last number – “Remember Your Lovers” – into the vacant auditorium. 

For Britten’s sinister, unsettling A Charm of Lullabies, mezzo Katie Stevenson had no human companion – save the excellent Ian Tindale – on the Hackney stage. Instead, director James Conway equipped her with a mound of scary dolls which gradually emerged from under the cover that first concealed them. In this 1947 collection of Elizabethan cradle lyrics (with one ditty by Burns), Britten really does unloose a demon in the nursery. Vocal and piano parts dig down beneath the tenderness into a darker nocturnal magic, conjuring music that undermines solace with menace. 

Yes, these songs do have their Grand Guignol elements. Even so, Conway perhaps overdid the Stephen King, Hollywood-horror styling as the white-socked Stevenson played with her pile of creepy little friends. The true frisson, though, came from her singing: fiercely controlled but raw, vulnerable and dangerous. The writing here, whether in Blake’s “Cradle Song” or Robert Greene’s “Sephestia’s Lullaby” strays far from the Victorian parlour into some antic, haunted and death-shadowed Mahlerian wood. Both singer and pianist took us there so effectively that the props meant to animate a recital became a bit of an encumbrance. As Britten (not to mention Donne) well knew, the worst night terrors play out in the theatre of the mind. 

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