The evening opened with Stephen McNeff’s Prometheus Drown’d, a dramatisation of the death of the poet Shelley in a sailing accident, the details of which remain open to speculation, and his cremation on a beach near Viareggio in Italy. It expands on a Shelley monologue, A Voice of One Delight, McNeff wrote in 2010, with Clare McCaldin singing the role of Jane Williams (with whom Shelley was infatuated at the time of his death and whose husband Edward drowned with Shelley). Three actors play Edward Trelawny (Shelley’s adventurous friend and biographer) young and old and the poet himself. McNeff’s beautifully scored music for the six-strong chamber ensemble includes a strong role for harp, and that and the spare, fragmentary style evoked Britten at his most elusive. There was, though, awkwardness between the sung and spoken roles. Despite the fluency of the music, McCaldin’s luminous mezzo was not strong on words (settings of poems Shelley wrote about Jane Williams) and the actors’ narration had a distancing effect. Christopher Good and Grant Sterry caught Trelawny’s legendary glamour, and Good was particularly effective in projecting the detail of Shelley’s cremation. Max Keeble, looking eerily like one of the paintings of Shelley, evoked the poet’s romantic impulsiveness. Richard Williams’s simple staging, a funeral pyre and some canvas ails, emphasized the tragic randomness of the drowning.
Cecilia McDowall’s Airborne is inspired by accounts of the new breed of fighter pilots in the First World War, the men who took to the skies in contraptions of canvas, wood and string. The five scenes move from the tentative start of a love-affair between pilot Johnny and Alice, a nurse, and ends with her witnessing Johnny’s death in a dog-fight. The staging was straightforward, a section of a plane summing up its fragility, and two stagehands with model aircraft acting out the fights. McDowall’s music soared lyrically and explored the chamber group’s breadth of sonority; it has an enviable melodic directness and neatly opened and closed with a ghostly reference to ‘Roses of Picardy’. Donna Lennard’s generous soprano caught the spirit of the music if not, again, the words. I can imagine Henry Manning’s elegant baritone and classic good looks continuing to be held in high regard.
- Further performances at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel on July 30 & 31, both at 8.15 p.m.