It’s three years since the last Glyndebourne community opera, Nothing impressed audiences and critics alike. Glyndebourne has a long history of such projects, producing operas involving amateur singers of all ages from the community, and giving them the opportunity to perform alongside professional soloists and orchestra, and their newest commission from composer Howard Moody is no exception. A 75-strong local auditioned chorus, with an age range of 12 to 71, is joined by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, one of Glyndebourne’s two resident orchestras. The OAE have also given opportunities to local young players, who get to perform alongside the professionals in the orchestra pit.

Tom Scott-Cowell (Korimako) and Nazan Fikret (Elin) © Robert Workman
Tom Scott-Cowell (Korimako) and Nazan Fikret (Elin)
© Robert Workman

The opera, with a libretto by the composer's daughter, Anna Moody, is a tale of the division between two lands, brought about as a result of the leader, Alex’s (baritone Michael Wallace) desire for power and control over people and resources. The resulting division and separation of the lands of Aquila and Orientis has devastating results for his family, both his mother Maya (mezzo soprano Louise Winter), banished to Aquila, and his daughter Elin (soprano Nazan Fikret), who falls in love with Korimako (countertenor Tom Scott-Cowell), a love doomed to tragedy.

So, a popular vote, based a desire for power and exploiting fear, divides people, creates new boundaries and restricts freedom of movement. People are forced to cross water to reach safety, security and happiness, ultimately resulting in tragedy. Sounds familiar? Clearly drawing on such current themes creates potential for some powerful drama, and there a certainly moments when a strong message comes through, particularly in the scenes of violence in Act 2, showing how division has stirred up hatred and facilitated aggression, and in telling lines such as “We were one, now undone”. But the mix between a political message and what is essentially a classic tale of doomed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks is not an easy one to hold together, and the balance between these parallel aims was not always entirely clear.

Ellyn Hebron (Spirit of Elin) © Robert Workman
Ellyn Hebron (Spirit of Elin)
© Robert Workman

Moody’s music is atmospheric and watery from the outset, and the device of a harmony repeatedly shifting, back and forth, between two chords, created the sense of surging waves and currents that permeated the score throughout. As a contrast to this, the narrative ‘spirits’, consisting of a quartet of violin, guitar, kora and udu, led by Kronos (jazz singer Zara McFarlane), moved seamlessly on and off stage, providing a stylistic counterpoint that was very effective. McFarlane’s voice, smooth and silky, and with microphone, created an otherworldly contrast to the more present, operatic sound of the other leads. She also carried some of the most powerful lines of comment on this action (“History shrinks in one greedy hand”). It would have been nice to have heard more of Sura Susso’s kora playing, as this was a little lost in the background, but when it penetrated the texture, it added a welcome contrast. Violinist Anna Cooper also deserves mention for her improvisatory playing, particularly when moving in amongst the action. However, despite this counterpoint, the relentlessness of the watery music had the effect of dulling the pace somewhat, and particularly in Act 1, the dramatic energy was subdued.

Zara McFarlane (Kronos) and Louise Winter (Maya) © Robert Workman
Zara McFarlane (Kronos) and Louise Winter (Maya)
© Robert Workman

Scott-Cowell (Korimako) and Fikret (Elin) convinced as the torn apart lovers, and their voices blended beautifully in their duets, despite occasional moments of heavier orchestration obscuring the lighter countertenor voice. Wallace (Alex) and Winter (Maya) both provided strong dramatic presence, and although they were not given a huge amount to do vocally,

Cordelia Chisholm’s design was simple but effective, with a dark palette and a recurring circular theme. The subtle blues, greens and greys of the costumes meant that it was occasionally tricky to keep track of who was from Aquila or Orientis. Perhaps this was intentional – the divide was after all an arbitrary one, and ultimately they (we) are not that different – but at times it created an added element of confusion. Splashes of colour when they came were welcome, in the gold of Kronos’ dress and the circle of red light and even the guilty blood on Alex’s hands.

The community chorus of <i>Agreed</i> © Robert Workman
The community chorus of Agreed
© Robert Workman

But the most credit must go to the chorus, who performed throughout with impressive commitment and accuracy. Their dramatic performances were powerful, whether en masse or in smaller groupings, and Moody made good use of different levels of choral textures. There are some particularly strong voices amongst the youth chorus, and the smaller groups of Aquila Ambassadors and Orientis Attendants, but with all voices combined the impact was compelling. This is ultimately the measure of achievement of such an ambitious project, and all 75 singers deserve high praise. Hats off to Glyndebourne, their Education department and all involved in providing such high-class opportunities for local performers.

***11