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Patricia Bardon as Maurya [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of English National Opera]
14 Dec 2008

Riders to the Sea — English National Opera, London Coliseum

Back in June, in my review of The Pilgrim’s Progress at Sadler’s Wells, I wrote about the valuable and unsurpassed work being done by Richard Hickox to champion the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams in the composer’s centenary year, a project of which this rare staging of Riders to the Sea for ENO was to be the culmination.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Riders to the Sea
Jean Sibelius: Luonnotar

Luonnotar: Susan Gritton (soprano)
Riders to the Sea: Maurya, an old woman (Patricia Bardon); Bartley, her son (Leigh Melrose); Cathleen, her daughter (Kate Valentine); Nora, her younger daughter (Claire Booth); A woman (Madeleine Shaw); Michael (non speaking role) (Oliver Kieran-Jones). Actors: Ray Alley, Darren Everest, Simon Johns, Paul Joseph, Stephen O'Toole, Sebastian Rose. English National Opera. Conductor: Edward Gardner. Director: Fiona Shaw. Designers: Dorothy Cross, Tom Pye. Lighting designer: Jean Kalman.

Above: Patricia Bardon as Maurya

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of English National Opera


Nobody could have anticipated that the 60-year-old conductor would suffer a fatal heart attack only four days before ENO’s opening night.

The show went on in Hickox’s memory, led by ENO’s Music Director Edward Gardner, who had the difficult task of taking on the project in such sad circumstances. And Vaughan Williams’s opera, based on a play by J.M. Synge, is a grim work by anybody’s standards. A peasant woman, Maurya, lives in a coastal hut in the Aran Islands and has had two daughters and six sons; four of the sons, along with their father and grandfather, have already had their lives claimed by the sea. The fifth is missing, believed drowned, and fate dictates it is only a matter of time before the sixth is similarly lost. In the space of forty-five minutes, both are confirmed dead.

This was an impressive opera-directorial début by the actress and theatrical director Fiona Shaw, who created an emotionally-intense dynamic within what’s left of Maurya’s family. Their house is delineated by lighting only; there are no walls, so there is never any escape from the elements. Huge, shadowy upturned boat-hulls descend from above the stage, surreal and coffin-like. Tom Pye’s wonderfully bleak, craggy set is suggestive of a place which exists outside of the progress of time; a primaeval wasteland where nothing ever changes and all human life is in thrall to the will of nature.

In her final monologue, Maurya finds her anticipated devastation supplanted by a sense of relief and comfort that her life is no longer burdened by the certain knowledge of the destiny which awaits all of her menfolk; in one sense it is a small personal victory over nature, albeit in the context of an acknowledgement of human powerlessness. Mezzo Patricia Bardon was extraordinary in this scene, imbuing the music’s lyrical lines with an radiance that contrasts vividly with the terseness of her earlier anguished dialogue.

Sopranos Kate Valentine and Claire Booth, both making their ENO débuts, portrayed Maurya’s two daughters with emotional intelligence and excellent diction. Leigh Melrose — too long absent from the stage of the Coliseum — was ideal as the angry, burdened Bartley, the last surviving son.

The opera is well under an hour in length, and rather than staging it as a double bill with another short work, it was done with a curtain-raiser — Luonnotar, Sibelius’s 15-minute monologue for solo soprano, in a simple staging against the backdrop of Dorothy Cross’s unnervingly beautiful video projections. Singing in the original Finnish, and suspended in the centre of the stage in an eerie monolith which transpired to be one of the fateful boat-hulls, Susan Gritton was wonderful as the eponymous air-spirit who becomes trapped in the sea and inadvertently gives birth to the moon and stars. It was an inspired choice of opener, introducing the relationship between the sea and the eternal themes of birth, life, death and maternal grief which Riders goes on to explore further.

Raiders_to_the_Sea_009.png(left to right) Patricia Bardon as Maurya, Leigh Melrose as Bartley and Kate Valentine as Cathleen

The production integrates the two works fully, joining them into a single piece with a specially-commissioned interlude by John Woolrich, an organic-sounding progression of abstract chords. Not only does the pregnant Luonnotar open the performance — she closes it too, re-emerging onto the stage outside Maurya’s empty home, seemingly ready to give birth once more and perpetuate the cycle of motherhood.

Raiders_to_the_Sea_001.pngSusan Gritton as Luonnotar

The orchestral playing was powerful, lyrical and atmospheric in what is mostly very subtle and understated music; the standard was a fitting tribute to the late Hickox. It was a superb performance by a fine cast in an excellent production — but it was never going to be a cheerful experience.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

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