The task of writing an opera based on the story of a shipwrecked man and his descent into madness is one thing. Writing an opera based on the story of a man who is simultaneously protagonist and antagonist, seemingly very much alive, though in reality trapped in the final purgatorial seconds before his death, and whose only human interactions are memories distorted by terrifying hallucinations, is something else. That Oliver Rudland’s new setting of William Golding’s Pincher Martin, premièred at the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music, not only captured a strong essence of this most disturbing of novels, but also created what is a very accessible work, is an accomplishment of which he should be rightly proud.

<i>Pincher Martin</i>: Miles Horner as Pincher Martin © Jerome Woodwark
Pincher Martin: Miles Horner as Pincher Martin
© Jerome Woodwark

Described by the composer as an example of “a sort of twenty-first century Gesamtkunstwerk”, a word now so associated with the works of Richard Wagner that not only suggests an unavoidable parallel between his and Rudland’s new work, but is also a strong statement of Rudland's artistic aim. Instead of complicated scenery and staging, a huge cinematic projection is beamed onto the back wall that could constantly change between the various worlds that Martin’s consciousness inhabits. Opening dramatically with the torpedoing of his WW2 destroyer, we were suddenly submerged beneath the waves, with an anguished face flashing onto the screen in time with cries from baritone Miles Horner in the lead role. At other times, the scene was a road in rural England as if looking backwards from a moving car, or crashing waves, the seagulls that constantly tormented Martin, or the rock on which he is stranded. The handful of props used were ingenious in their simplicity in immersing the audience in Martin’s hallucinatory world. A desk, a car, and a grandfather clock were created so that each gradually merged into a rock formation – a stagehand simply rotating them between scenes, or leaving them ambiguously showing both sides, illustrating Martin’s utter confusion of reality. The staging, together with the projection, therefore became far more than simply decoration. Through very careful timing with the orchestra, and often-beautiful cinematography, it became an integral part of the work, as relevant as any character; a ‘sort of twenty-first century Gesamtkunstwerk’ it certainly seemed to be.

<i>Pincher Martin</i>: Philip Shakesby and Colette Boushell as Christopher Martin and Mary Lovell © Jerome Woodwark
Pincher Martin: Philip Shakesby and Colette Boushell as Christopher Martin and Mary Lovell
© Jerome Woodwark

Strange then that Roger Scruton, renowned writer and philosopher who gave a pre-performance talk, said that this was a piece that renewed the “natural” purpose of the orchestra in opera – that of an observer. Oddly this seemed to rather fly in the face of Rudland’s own description of the piece. If this truly is an example of “total art work”, where each element is involved fully in the drama, how can the music be a mere outsider looking in? Throughout the work, Rudland makes use of motifs, again inviting comparison with Wagner. The cry of seagulls, deftly composed using short string glissandi and carefully chosen harmonies, was a notable example, as were the chimes of Big Ben, interwoven into the orchestration, to indicate Nathaniel's office in which stood the semi-petrified grandfather clock.

Mary Lovell, one of only two women mentioned in the book and the object of Martin's perverse desires, was often accompanied by a mournfully emotional melody, so built into the opera that for the first time in seeing a contemporary work, I found myself humming it afterwards. The orchestral writing, enthusiastically performed by the Faust Ensemble, was therefore always innovative and exciting. Rudland’s compositional language, despite omitting the woodwind to emphasise the harshness of Martin's surroundings at the time of his death, was regularly lush, almost at that interface between the Impressionist and the Modernist. Scruton’s comment, however, that the orchestra’s role here is nonetheless one of observance, is in part apt, often used in support of the singers and only really fully at the fore during interludes between Martin’s visions. A larger orchestral ensemble may have allowed it to have greater presence, for at times it felt as if Rudland's harmonies needed just a little more support if their full impact was to be felt.

The cast itself was small, a result of the novel's use of only three main characters. Pincher Martin was sung by two baritones, Miles Horner playing the Martin around whose descent into insanity on the rock the story revolves. His dedication to the role was clear, always providing an effective portrayal of Martin's anguish, and supported by a well-rounded voice apparently easily capable of reaching extremities of the required range. The Pincher Martin of the past, performed by Philip Shakesby, arguably had greater resonance and seemed more comfortable in a lower tessitura. Yet often there was a lack of diction, and in a particularly dramatic scene, where he attempts to frighten Mary Lovell into submitting to his amorous intentions, the words were almost lost to the orchestral background.

<i>Pincher Martin</i>: Bradley Smith as Nathaniel Walterson © Jerome Woodwark
Pincher Martin: Bradley Smith as Nathaniel Walterson
© Jerome Woodwark

Soprano Colette Boushell who sang the role of Mary Lovell, and later Mrs Campbell, the wife of the man who finds Martin's washed-up body, was a suitable choice for this role. We never discover much of Mary in the novel, and only see her through Martin's twisted mind. Once engaged to his best friend Nathaniel, she becomes a figure of obsession and hatred, whom Martin threatens with death unless she consents to let him make love to her. His eventual rape of Mary is described with brutal diffidence. She represents the “good” in the novel that Martin desecrates, symbolic of his entire life, condemning himself to the refusal of redemption and tortured demise. Boushell's role, therefore, was never to dominate, and her soprano voice was able to impose itself without overwhelming the lower voices. Occasionally, very high passages may have caused her to strain slightly, but these were only fleeting phrases.

Tenor Bradley Smith gave an excellent portrayal of Nathaniel, a character who, like Mary, represents the good of humanity, whom Martin both loves and selfishly despises. His part often occupied the upper limits of the range, yet Smith performed it with apparent ease, providing a welcome medium between Martin's baritone and Boushell's soprano. Piotr Lempa, as Port Lookout and Captain Davidson, impressed with his beautifully full and clear bass in his relatively small yet crucial part. This then was an opera without a chorus, yet Rudland's regular use of ensemble singing meant that this was not missed. That the cast consisted of four lower voices and one soprano, however, meant that clarity of diction became an issue as a lack of balance began to tell at moments when a trio or more were formed.

This, however, was only a minor problem that a readjustment in balance between singers and orchestra, or performing in a venue with a slightly different acoustic, may resolve. The silent removal of Martin's body at the close of the opera was followed by subdued major chords, the screen displaying a calming sunset. An abrupt final orchestral outburst and a flash of Martin's harrowed face, and Rudland appeared to have achieved that rare and valuable object: a contemporary work that is both challenging yet accessible. Despite its disturbing subject matter, it is lyrical, inventive, and above all a thoroughly engaging work.