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21 Jun 2019

The Gardeners: a new opera by Robert Hugill

‘When war shall cease this lonely unknown spot,/ Of many a pilgrimage will be the end,/ And flowers will shine in this now barren plot/ And fame upon it through the years descend:/ But many a heart upon each simple cross/ Will hang the grief, the memory of its loss.’

The Gardeners: a new opera by Robert Hugill, at Conway Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Peter Brathwaite (The Old Gardener)

 

‘A Soldier’s Cemetery’, bridging past and present and future, as imagined by Sergeant John William Streets, who was killed and missing in action on 1 st July 1916, aged 31.

The lands where the ‘fallen’ rest summon strong emotions: sorrow, shock, nostalgia, disbelief, anger. From the fields of Flanders where, in the words of John McCrae, ‘the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row’, to Owen Sheers’ Mametz Wood, where ‘For years afterwards the farmers found them -/ the wasted young turning up under their plough blades … A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,/ the relic of a finger, the blown/ and broken bird’s egg of a skull’, the landscapes which are ‘home’ to those who gave their lives in war seem to resonate with the words of the dead as they try to speak, through the earth, to the living. Having visited the British War Cemetery at Bayeux, Charles Causley wrote:

I walked where in their talking graves
And shirts of earth five thousand lay,
When history with ten feasts of fire
Had eaten the red air away.

If such places are redolent with elegy and emptiness, rage and nostalgia, it is almost painful - in these troubling political times, at home and abroad - to remind ourselves that much of British history is built upon conflicts waged overseas. But, the gardeners who tend the cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission honour the fallen as a labour of duty and love, ensuring that the 1.7 million people who died in the 20th century’s two World Wars are remembered. The Commission maintains cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations in 153 different countries.

It was an article in the Daily Telegraph in May 2017 about three generations of a family who tend the graves at one such cemetery in Palestine, chanced upon by Robert Hugill, that sowed the seeds of the composer’s ten-scene opera The Gardeners, which, lasting a little over an hour, was premiered at Conway Hall earlier this week. It’s an opera in which The Dead (there are Joycean undertones here) trouble, console and nurture the living.

Reading Joanna Wyld’s prose libretto - which fluently incorporates selected phrases adapted from A.E. Housman and Rabindranath Tagore - I was reminded again of the poets’ voices which urge and enable the departed to carry their messages from the past to the present:

From McCrae’s Flanders’ fallen, so keen to urge us, ‘We are the Dead. […] Take up our quarrel with the foe:/ To you from failing hands we throw/ The torch; be yours to hold it high.’; to Kipling’s ‘The King’s Pilgrimage’ (an account of King George V's 1992 Visit to War Cemeteries in France (Kipling whose only son John was killed in action at the Battle of Loos in 1915, joined the newly founded Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission in 1917, and was the first Literary Advisor to the Commission); to Sheers’ ‘twenty men buried in one long grave’: ‘As if the notes they had sung/ have only now, with this unearthing, slipped from their absent tongues.’

Wyld’s libretto charts the generational conflicts and conversations, cyclical returns and resolutions of three men - a grandfather, a father and a son - whose sense of duty and affinity is diluted as the years pass. While the Old Gardener is in daily communion with The Dead, The Young Gardener (his grandson, an Angry Young Man) resents the presence on and in his soil of an ‘invading’ force. Two female members of this generational palimpsest seek to urge unity and understanding. Emotional crises are followed by epiphanies.

Peter Brathwaite’s Old Gardener was a wonderfully compelling figure even within the concert-staged format; his terrific diction, emotive delivery, focused tone and nuanced phrasing really shook one from one’s complacency. As his son, bass-baritone Julian Debreuil had real presence, using his vocal strength and vivid colour to convey absorbing immediacy. Hugill was well-served by both of these singers who know how to make something of a musical phrase.

William Vann conducts The Gardeners.jpgWilliam Vann conducts The Gardeners

As the Young Gardener, countertenor Magid El-Bushra didn’t initially make his presence felt; he lacked projection, nuance of phrasing and variety of colour - though to say that his singing was ‘just’ beautiful is hardly a criticism! It was not until the collapse of his grandfather, though, that the Angry Young Man was dramatically and vocally ‘transfigured’; and in repeating his grandfather’s words at the close, the Young Man’s reverence, commitment and belief were made entirely credible. Now we had some sense of character; and, tension and a dynamic relationship with the instrumental lines: ‘We should take up arms/And fight! Show the oppressors/ Who they’re dealing with.’

Flora McIntosh’s Grandmother made a strong mark and used her lower range very emotively and dramatically; her conflict with her grandson was one of the performance’s most dramatically compelling moments. Similarly, the duet for the Grandmother and Georgia Mae Bishop’s Mother made one reflect that perhaps Hugill might have fruitfully included more dramatic ensembles.

The Dead were represented by a male vocal group, singing, with a fitting balance of unrest and assurance, from a gallery in the Conway Hall. The instrumental accompaniment - a five-piece ensemble comprising violin, viola, cello, clarinet and harp - was sensitively played, directed by William Vann with scrupulous attention to detail and appreciation of the pace of the musico-dramatic unfolding. Oliver Wass’s harp had a primary role and he made sure that the motivic repetitions made their mark. But, I did feel that, even with the small forces at his disposal, Hugill might have reached for greater timbral variety; in particular, I missed a strong bass line, as well as diversity of tempo.

That said, Hugill’s music has a moving serenity and stillness; perhaps more variety of pace and colour would be needed to sustain engagement in the theatre, but on this occasion the spiritual focus of the music seemed assured.

I’m not sure that Wyld’s libretto, for all its sensitivity of utterance, aids vocal diversity and characterisation. Its rhythms dictate a declamatory arioso. At times when this declamation is foregrounded the effect is strong; as when, to harp accompaniment, the Old Gardener tries to explain to the misunderstood Dead - ‘People hear that they wish to hear. Believe what they wish to believe. This is how it is. Nobody agrees.’ Similarly, when the Old Gardener and his son call upon The Dead to speak to their troubled young descendant - ‘You burdened our hands that we might lighten them./ You left us in the dust to create your heaven’ - the harp’s striking support of their lines makes a strong impact.

There are variations of tone in the text: the exchanges between the Grandmother and Mother are both more intimate and relaxed, and humorously prickly. This was not perhaps always evident in the musical setting.

Many times during this performance I was reminded of the five Canticles of Benjamin Britten. I wonder if Hugill’s The Gardeners is less opera and more cantata? There are instrumental interludes between the scenes, and they often provide change of pulse and temperament, but I found it quite hard to imagine how these might be ‘dramatised’, and there seems to be no particular need for a change of location or scenery that the interludes might facilitate. But, it would be interesting to see the work staged to see what the composer envisages.

Overall, there is a formality, of a ritual and spiritual kind, that this opera observes consistently and with considerable impact. The Angry Young Man’s final words are of reassurance and hope - ‘I will tell them, brothers. They will listen.’

Claire Seymour

The Old Gardener - Peter Brathwaite, The Gardener - Julian Debreuil, The Angry Young Man - Magid El Bushra, The Mother - Georgia Mae Bishop, The Grandmother - Flora McIntosh, The Dead [Andrew Henley, William Davies, Chris Lombard, Angus McPhee, Jake Muffett]; William Vann - conductor, Oliver Wass (harp), Charlotte Amherst (violin), Joanna Patrick (viola), Sophie Haynes (cello), Anthony Friend (clarinet).

Conway Hall, London, Tuesday 18th June 2019.

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