All opera lovers are well aware that 2013 marks the bicentennial of the birth two of opera’s greatest composers: Verdi and Wagner. Most have probably heard that it’s the centennial of Benjamin Britten as well. I’m willing to bet that far fewer aficionados are celebrating the centennial of Britten’s contemporary George Lloyd. While major opera houses mount a dazzling variety of new Verdi, Wagner, and Britten productions, a smaller, local company, Surrey Opera, has taken it upon themselves to remember Lloyd by producing his “neglected” first opera, Iernin.

Iernin © Pete Marr
Iernin
© Pete Marr

Unfortunately for Surrey Opera, their laudable effort simply confirms that history’s neglect of the piece is justified. Iernin contains some striking moments – including fabulous orchestral textures and lovely choral writing – but the plodding pace and forgettable solo melodies left me disappointed.

In this legend-turned-opera, Iernin is a fairy who was turned into stone by a priest. When she inexplicably awakens from her petrified slumber she encounters Gerent, a Cornish man, who immediately falls in love with her despite his engagement to the princess, Cunaide. Gerent’s friends tear him away from her, insisting that she is a witch, but she finds him again at his wedding procession. When the villagers and priest threaten her, Gerent protects her and is cursed with her. They run to the hills, but Cunaide follows them and rebukes Gerent for forgetting what he owes the people of Cornwall. Iernin, seeing that their worlds are incompatible, uses her power to turn back into a stone. Cunaide and Gerent return to town together.

As Iernin, Catharine Rogers was the uncontestable star of the show. She has a powerful dramatic soprano voice with a rich, full sound, even if she didn’t always seem quite in control of her formidable instrument. She also excellently conveyed her character’s helplessness and confusion, and was particularly engaging in her initial scene as she delightedly explored the possibilities of movement in her new body.

The rest of the cast showed flashes of promise, but were often very difficult to hear over the orchestra. This was in part due to the lack of a pit – the orchestra sat directly between the stage and the audience – but also due to Lloyd’s dense orchestral writing. As the princess Cunaide, Felicity Buckland carried herself regally and displayed a contralto voice strong on both the high and low notes. Her fiancé Gerent (Edward Hughes) was less compelling. Both his voice and face showed staggering power in his angry Act II defense of Iernin, but for most of the opera it was unclear why both women were attracted to this uncharismatic man. As Gerent’s honor-obsessed friend Edyrn, Hakan Vramsmo sang with pleasant lyricism that, thanks to the light orchestration during his pieces, was usually audible.

James Harrison, who was to play the part of King Bedwyr, was unfortunately unable to sing on the night. He instead mimed the part while Jon Openshaw sang from the side of the stage. Openshaw’s singing was competent but not exciting, and his visible placement onstage left the audience (and, it seemed, some of the other singers) unclear where to look.

The Surrey Opera Chorus sounded beautiful but looked blank-faced during the numbers, though they were engagingly lively during the non-singing portions of the crowd scenes. Jonathan Butcher conducted the orchestra – undoubtedly a tricky task, as the area cordoned off for them was quite long and narrow. The intricate textures of Lloyd’s instrumental music came through nicely, but it would have been nicer if we had been able to hear the singers more frequently too! The well-blocked action took place on a spare but functional set, illuminated with lights that changed distractingly suddenly.

Towards the end of the final act, as Iernin turned to stone, the director transported the events of the opera to the WWII era. This worked well to underscore Lloyd’s involvement in the war and Iernin’s symbolic role as peace. Cunaide, Lloyd and the director seemed to be saying, represents the world of moral practicality rather than pacifistic idealism; Gerent had to be called back to the former. As the director points out in his notes, this was a point of difference between Lloyd, who served in the war, and Britten, a pacifist who spent much of the war in the United States.

Regardless of whose views on war you find most noble, Iernin leaves it clear that Britten was by far the better opera composer of the two. Surrey Opera made an admirable attempt with this tribute to Lloyd, but the piece itself left me wondering why they bothered.