Njogel opens with spectacular beauty, with a small wooden ship bobbing up and down along a ship’s boom, its furled sail representing the waves of the sea around the Shetland isles: and, lo and behold, “the Isle is full of noises”. And they are enchanting, atmospheric noises. Composer James Young and librettist Neil Georgeson, who also play all the instrumental accompaniment between them, take us on a mysterious folk tale adventure full of wit, originality and exciting music, culminating in a fabulously grand deus ex machina (and a lovely Latin pun in the libretto to match). Third Hand, the UK’s only dedicated puppet opera company, have created a production which moves smoothly from humour to pathos, and from suspicion to love, in which the puppets, playing the legendary creatures of Shetlandic folklore, take the moral high ground: it is human beings who are the compromised, inferior creatures here. Even our singers, in a clever directoral touch from Stuart Barker and Darren East, are introduced to the stage initially by puppeteers dressed in black monks' habits, as if they are overgrown Pinocchios, still subservient to those who pull the strings or wield the handles.

Fleur de Bray in <i>Njogel</i> © Claire Shovelton
Fleur de Bray in Njogel
© Claire Shovelton

Shetland’s folk culture is a mixture of Scandinavian and Scots: the Shetland Isles belonged to Norway until 1469, when they were given to Scotland in settlement of a financial debt. Consequently, while this story contains the classically Celtic figure of the Selkie, the shiningly beautiful seal people who can only be tamed by those who steal their sealskins when they leave them on the shore, we also have some rather more Nordic trolls (here called “Trows”) and the peculiarly Shetlandic water horse spirit, the Njogel, who tempts unwary travellers (or, here, arrogant men) to get on his back, then conveys them to untimely doom. Throw in a wandering idealistic composer, his gluttonous capitalist brother, a mad nun and an underground jewel mine, and you have all the ingredients of a magical, unsettling evening.

The libretto, by Neil Georgeson, is playful and beautiful, mixing familiar folk images with neologisms and dialect to produce a unique, highly textured lyric voice: phrases like, "The Trows are elves troglodystic, delving into hillocks" are a delight to say as well as sing, while "to caper ecstatically to the insidious music of the violin" sounds wickedly fun. Georgeson's words have put together with exceptional care and skill: the sinuous alliteration of "Selkies sail like sirens of the sea, slipping off their sealskins to reveal seductive female bodies" contrasts perfectly with the crunchingly industrial language of Albrecht (Timothy Nelson), who has come to Shetland "to catalogue all exploitables and expendables". Albrecht exploits everyone around him, including his too-trusting musical brother Martin (Julien Van Mellaerts) and the unfortunate and lovely Selkie (Rosie Bell), whom he forces to mine gemstones in the Trows’ caves, before Martin can finally rescue her with his humble love.

Julien Van Mellaerts and Rosie Bell in <i>Njogel</i> © Claire Shovelton
Julien Van Mellaerts and Rosie Bell in Njogel
© Claire Shovelton

James Young's music has great creative breadth and depth. Each character has their own distinctive sound, but all combine to create a curiously harmonious whole, making for an intriguing and satisfying listen, occasionally interspersed by plain speech. The unearthly, wordless, yearning keen of the Selkie soars over the plunging and rolling chords of the sea in a stunning puppetry sequence in which the seal hunts a fish through the waves. The last lone, mad nun left on Shetland (Fleur de Bray) detonates her loathing and fear of the pagan elements on the island in fiercely dynamic music, underpinned by wry humour, as she approaches squawking insanity. Fleur de Bray's marvellous control and superb characterisation ensure we are drawn towards this mysterious character, not repelled by her, even though her frustrated vocation has clearly blasted her mind. The nun's story ends on a tragic note, as she hears the Selkie's wild seductive song and realises that her life has been wasted; we are as sad for her as we are happy for the future of Martin and his now-freed Selkie bride.

Simon Bejer’s gorgeous puppets, from the tiny fish mounted on a puppeteer’s hand for the seal to hunt through the ocean, to the giant Njogel, a unicorn-like being who fills the entire height and breadth of the stage, not to mention the delicately pretty (and naked) Selkie herself, are intensely atmospheric and cleverly realised, all expertly manipulated by puppeteers Aurora Adams and Nick Lawson. The combination of puppets and humans gives the opera a surreal, yet serious edge, the story always playful, but holding a profound sense of the symbolic too. The cruel plight of the Selkie is painful and moving; the warm friendliness of the Trow, as he drinks mead with Martin in his glittering underground cavern, brings a glow of humanity and hope. Njogel is a treat from start to end: let’s hope we haven’t seen the last of him. 

*****