With a complex narrative on many levels the story of Peter Pan was always going to be a tough nut to crack operatically. Add to that a long stage-history as a play and a pantomime and necessitating technical wizardry for flying characters, crocodiles and the like the demands are tough. Enjoyable as this performance was, it served to prove that composer, librettist and director have only been partially successful in bringing the work to a fully dramatic realisation.
There were many children in the audience – a very welcome sight – but how many would have got even the basic plot where they coming to the story for the first time? But where are the vital elements of surprise and discovery that should be part of every theatrical performance? The impression is that the attempt to get the story told had left little time for meaningful development of characters from a dramatic and musical aspect, not least a vital mix of the humorous and the sinister.
Richard Ayres’s music is attractive and his scoring inventive. The Overture seems to owe a huge debt to Janáček with its restless, slightly astringent orchestration. Later on there were moments when one felt the influence of Ravel and Britten, both composers who wrote stage-works for and involving children – respectively L’Enfant et les sortilèges and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and both came to mind at various points. There is some effective use of thematic material – the tick-tock of clocks and a wistful lilting melody that is associated with Mrs Darling and with Wendy. The separate worlds of the London family, the lost boys, the pirates and the fearsome female Indians led by Tiger-Lily are all differentiated by a musical perspective but not always so memorably.
Tink(erbell) is here a projected presence; her ‘singing’ voiced through the orchestra. You needed the surtitles and the interplay with Peter to get what her character was about – and her volatile mischievous temperament was only really hinted at – which then made the pathos of her self-sacrifice to save Peter from being poisoned by Captain Hook pass for little. Her music is delightful however, shimmery use of percussion to the fore. Erik Nielsen and the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera gave a creditable performance, full of brilliancy and energy.
The singers had an uphill struggle to develop character, but there were some notable performances. Peter Pan was sung by countertenor Iestyn Morris – another example of an outsider role being given to this voice type; the realisation is a hybrid of Oberon and Puck from Britten’s Shakespearean opera. Morris’s reedy voice projected well over the orchestra and he got his words across – resorting occasionally to an almost baritonal emphasis for effect. His performance was also notable for its athleticism; that Peter’s mercurial nature did not always emerge was not his fault. Marie Arnet’s Wendy was more successful – she captured both the girlishness and the womanliness of the character and her soliloquy towards the end of the first Act was the vocal and musical highlight. Hilary Summers’s warm mezzo was heard to better effect as Mrs Darling than as the more animated Tiger-Lily; she has a strong stage presence. Ashley Holland was a suitably harassed Mr Darling and a burly charisma as the alter-ego Captain Hook – although the humour was underplayed.
Keith Warner’s production is effective enough, although even on the Birmingham Hippodrome stage Jason Southgate’s designs were somewhat cluttered. I liked the clever evocations of shark-infested seas and the inspired doubling of London Transport carriages as Hook’s ship. The flying effects were deftly handled. All told the evening was full of admirable intent and ambition – if sadly not realised 100-percent. Further performances at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on July 24 & 25.