House of the Gods

House of the Gods – Opera in two acts

Jack – Mark Evans
Lily – Louise Cannon
Ma – Fiona Kimm
Da – Andrew Slater
Crom – Philip Sheffield

Music Theatre Wales Ensemble
Michael Rafferty

Michael McCarthy – director
Colin Richmond – designer
John Bishop – lighting

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 October, 2006
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A disillusioned soldier on leave from the front in 1916 … a pub run by an eccentric couple who just happen to be Celtic gods on the slide … their unworldly daughter with her premonitions of a terrible future … an uncle obsessed with creating a new race of super-warriors: it would be hard to concoct a more off-the-wall or an over-the-top plot than that which composer Lynne Plowman and librettist Martin Riley have put together for their second operatic venture.

Whereas “Gwyneth and the Green Knight” was a family drama, “House of the Gods” is very much an adult affair – though this is not to suggest that, as a theatrical presentation, it is anything other than entertainment of a high order.

A review of the premiere earlier this year described the opera as one where “Götterdämmerung” meets “Oh! What a Lovely War”, which fairly sums up the scenario that unfolds over two acts and whose taut dramatic pacing is not always encountered in contemporary music theatre. Martin Riley’s libretto may be long on laughs but short on subtlety, but his characters are always engaging in their predicaments:owners of The Half-Way House – Da, who longs to subdue men by heroic deeds as of old, and Ma, who longs to subdue them by other means; Jack, the Lance-corporal embodying a soldier’s disgust at the carnage around him; Lily, their adopted (as is revealed) daughter fighting her adolescent fear of the outside world; and Crom, the sinister uncle-figure whose engendering ‘weapons of mass destruction’ are thwarted, but only for now – the capacity to destroy being ever-present in the human condition.

For her part, Lynne Plowman once again evinces a keen dramatic instinct – whether in the liveliness and singability of her vocal lines, or in her idiomatic ensemble writing that is always geared to the situation at hand. Stylistic influences are numerous: Britten certainly, as well as composers formally active in the field of music-theatre (not least Richard Rodney Bennett and Malcolm Williamson, whose chamber operas are themselves worth revival), which is not to suggest that Plowman’s idiom is dated or irrelevant. Moreover, her unerring sense of dramatic timing ensures that each act moves forward with mounting tension to its denouement: not such a frequent occurrence in contemporary opera.

The production is a dependable one, with Michael McCarthy’s economical direction making the most of inevitably limited stage space, and Colin Richmond’s designs vividly evoking the bar and cellar of the pub with sets that can be rearranged with ease between scenes. John Bishop’s lighting ensures an appropriately lurid quality in the cellar scenes, where Crom carries out his scientific experiments.

The cast has the hallmark of strong teamwork familiar from previous productions by Music Theatre Wales. Fiona Kimm gives a charismatic performance as Ma, the Celtic love-goddess who now longs for mortality and a quiet retirement at a seaside B & B in Aberystwyth, and is ably supported by Andrew Slater as her put-upon husband and would-be-warlord Da – his powers having long since diminished. Louise Cannon makes the most of Lily’s flights of fancy with singing of effulgent lyricism, while Philip Sheffield brings an unnervingly human quality to Crom – without which his capacity to do harm would never rise above the level of parody. As Jack, Mark Evans engages the more his role evolves across the course of the opera – overcoming his negativity both towards himself and others, as he gradually comprehends the seriousness of the situation and his necessary part in preventing ultimate disaster.

Michael Rafferty directs the ever-consistent Music Theatre Wales Ensemble with a sure sense of where the drama is headed, and makes the most of Plowman’s often inventive scoring. Whether “House of the Gods” has quite the depth to make its point about the ‘masters of war’ with sufficient gravity, it confirms that opera with a message can be absorbing and entertaining in equal measure. Try and catch it on tour.

  • The performance the evening before was the London premiere
  • Music Theatre Wales
  • Further performances:
  • Tuesday 10 October; The Anvil, Basingstoke; Box office 01256 844244
  • Sunday 29 October; Oxford Playhouse; 01865 305305
  • Thursday 2 November; Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield; 0114 249 6000
  • Thursday 9 November; Aberystwyth Arts Centre; 01970 623232
  • Sunday 12 November; New Theatre, Cardiff; 029 2087 8889
  • Tuesday 22 November; Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival) 01484 430528
  • Saturday 25 November; Gala Theatre, Durham; 0191 332 4041

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