“Substantial changes in working practices and daily routines likely to be required” was the line from the UK Met Office this week, warning of record breaking heat throughout the country. Yet it might have slipped quite easily into Alice Birch’s libretto for Violet, whose already potent themes of isolation, restriction, and a physical environment in collapse, have only gained currency in the two years since its premiere was delayed by the pandemic.

Anna Dennis (Violet)
© Marc Brenner

Violet lives a hemmed-in existence in a closed, coastal community whose rigid way of life centres on the hours tolled by the village clocktower. Men work, wives stay at home, servants bake the bread, all strictly on schedule. The setting is intentionally indeterminate, but wherever (and whenever) we are, time has begun to disappear, an hour every day, and sleepless, miserable Violet is the first to notice. As panic sets in, she spies her chance. Embracing chaos and defying her autocratic husband Felix, who reminds her “nobody has ever left”, she builds herself a boat and plots her escape, determined to taste freedom at last: even if the world might end before she has the chance. 

Richard Burkhard (Felix) and Anna Dennis (Violet)
© Marc Brenner

Tom Coult’s vocal writing charts the blossoming of Violet’s own independence against the village’s powerlessness, her other-worldly, high-lying music contrasting with the earthier tones of Felix and her maid Laura (Frances Gregory). The recurring toll of the clocktower’s bell weaves its way inexorably through Coult’s sinuous score, warping and glitching as time itself decays, and punctuated by percussive tick-tocks and chimes: time made audible. Members of the London Sinfonietta – just thirteen of them – play with luminous expressivity under conductor Andrew Gourlay, readily entering into the opera’s darkly playful spirit which sees several of them equipped with metronomes and other objects to play in addition to their own instruments.

Coult and Birch have described the work as both parable and fairytale, qualities which Jude Christian’s production embraces. There’s a hint of the haunted doll’s house to Violet’s world, a ghostly unreality which Rosie Elnile’s and Cécile Trémolières’ sparse designs – mingling period costume pieces with modern props – and Jackie Shemesh’s lurid lighting scheme all serve to enhance. Yet its contemporary resonances are easily detected: not just in Violet’s embodiment of female autonomy, but in Felix’s furious perplexity at an environmental crisis which, as she points out in no uncertain terms, he ought to have seen coming – if only he’d been looking.

Frances Gregory (Laura)
© Marc Brenner

Vocal performances are uniformly strong. As Felix, a stern authority figure undone by inexorable fate, Richard Burkhard’s steady, dark-hued baritone fittingly evokes the character’s Verdian forebears, while mezzo soprano Frances Gregory is a touching Laura, her timbre growing in richness as the maid gives voice to her thoroughly understandable fears. Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks brings knife-edge clarity of tone and diction to the Clock Keeper, on whom the community first pins its hopes and then turns its anger, his eventual outbursts are all the more powerful for his having appeared, silently, throughout the first, posting the town’s lost hours on a display board like bible verses. 

Richard Burkhard (Felix) and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (Clock Keeper)
© Marc Brenner

Doll-like in her bare feet and Pippi Longstocking pigtails, Anna Dennis’ Violet visibly matures as the opera progresses, clockwork movements giving way to an easy, assured physicality as she reclaims her power. Coult’s writing for her is a touch less nuanced, fixating on her stellar upper register to the occasional neglect of expressive depth, but Dennis delivers it with crystalline poise and pinpoint accuracy, and its ethereal quality is at least in keeping with her character’s detachment. Her obsessive, straight-toned repetition of a simple “yes...yes...yes”, in response to reports of ever more horrifying events in the community (eventually including her own husband's execution) is especially haunting. 

At just one hour and forty minutes in length, the opera is satisfyingly concise and steadily paced, while still allowing each of its four characters room for an expansive soliloquy where it counts. The final sequence, an extended computer animation, arguably runs too long, and too far into outright surrealism to pack the necessary punch, but future productions may well make more sense of that. And presumably they’ll have the chance: Violet surely has the bones to weather any number of interpretations. Let’s just hope there’s time.