Garsington Opera at Wormsley – Roxanna Panufnik’s Silver Birch – directed by Karen Gillingham; conducted by Douglas Boyd

Roxanna Panufnik
Silver Birch – A “People’s Opera” to a libretto by Jessica Duchen [Garsington Opera commission: world premiere; sung in English, with English surtitles]

Jack – Sam Furness
Anna – Victoria Simmonds
Simon – Darren Jeffery
Siegfried Sassoon – Bradley Travis
Mrs Morrell – Sarah Redgwick
Davey – James Way
Leo – William Saint
Chloe – Katya Harlan

Garsington Opera Orchestra
Student instrumentalists
Foley artists
Garsington Adult, Military, Youth and Primary Companies
Douglas Boyd

Karen Gillingham – Director
Rhiannon Newman Brown – Designer
Rob Casey – Lighting Designer
Natasha Khamjani – Movement Director
Mischa Ying – Video Designer
Glen Gathard & Foley artists from Pinewood Studios – Sound Design

Reviewed by: Amanda-Jane Doran

Reviewed: 28 July, 2017
Venue: Opera Pavilion, Wormsley Park, Buckinghamshire, England

Garsington Opera at Wormsley – Roxanna Panufnik’s Silver BirchBradley Travis (Siegfried Sassoon) with Community ChorusPhotograph: John SnellingRoxanna Panufnik’s Silver Birch embodies the power of music to transform lives and communicate a profound, universal message. It’s a community project involving one-hundred-and-eighty singers from different backgrounds, including Primary School children, army veterans and women from a local refuge. The professional singers provide the framework for the narrative which begins on a bleak housing estate where a silver birch is planted as a symbol when a first son is born to a young couple. The music builds in complexity from the opening chorus, the freshness of massed children’s voices providing a sweet balance with the more-mature timbres; and Panufnik’s lightness of touch – using piano, percussion, strings and brass – dances between devotional and jazzy.

As Jack grows up he believes the only means of escape lies in joining the army, and his brother Davey follows him, to the horror of their mother Anna, played by Victoria Simmonds, who expresses her love and concern. Jessica Duchen’s libretto seamlessly blends letters documenting the experiences of serving soldiers in Iraq with the poetry and diaries of soldier Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) to convey a timeless picture of the individual cost of war without ignoring its related courage and comradeship. The intimacy of the text is reinforced by the vernacular nature of the music: football chants and claps, nursery rhymes and the rhythms of marching feet are used to heighten dramatic moments. The music that surrounds us every day is supercharged with meaning: “Soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me” carries the archetypal message of daring, loss and love as sung by the children in the playground.

Garsington Opera at Wormsley – Roxanna Panufnik’s Silver BirchJames Way (Davey), Sam Furness (Jack) with Community ChorusPhotograph: John SnellingSilver Birch is divided into three sections, the second of which opens in a Middle Eastern battle zone. Jack and Davey go through appalling, brutalising experiences – based directly on testimony and letters by Lance Corporal Jay Wheeler. Sound- and lighting-effects combine with movement and all-too-realistic fire to create convincing desert conflict. The final part deals with Jack’s return to England, where he acknowledges he must face the “real war” with his father, Simon, the destructive force in the family. The silver birch has been damaged, but it has survived against the odds and flourishes.

Sam Furness as Jack was dynamic and passionate, and his interactions with youngest brother Leo, sung by schoolboy William Saint, and sister Chloe, are playfully touching and poignant. Panufnik and Duchen’s achievement is to synthesise personal and poetic experiences, often harrowing and disturbing, into a work of beauty and hope.

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