Ludd and Isis: The Purfleet Opera

Richard Taylor
Ludd and Isis, comminuty opera to a libretto by Stephen Plaice

Ludd – James Oldfield
Isis – Tamsin Dalley
Stoker – Andrew Slater
Jo – Cheryl Enever
Edgar – Andrew Rees
Mrs Grantham – Sarah Pring

Ensemble – Nicola Wydenbach, Claire McCaldin, Robert Burt, Grant Doyle & Simon Lobelson

Thurrock Community Chorus

Royal Ballet Dancers:
Jo – Mara Galeazzi
Edgar – Ryoichi Hirano

Robert Houssart – Conductor
Tom Guthrie – Director

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 7 December, 2010
Venue: Bob and Tamar Manoukian Workshop, High House Production Park, Purfleet

Serendipity perhaps, but this year both of London’s opera companies have taken over buildings far to the east of their normal homes for new operas. Where English National Opera in the summer teamed up with immersive proponents Punchdrunk in a deserted office block at Gallions Reach in Docklands for Thorsten Rasch’s “The Duchess of Malfi”, the Royal Opera House here celebrates its brand-new production workshop in Purfleet (replacing its previous premises in Stratford, subject to compulsory purchase and now re-fashioned as part of the Olympic Park), with a community opera “Ludd and Isis”, composed by Richard Taylor to a libretto bursting will local allusions and references by Stephen Plaice.

I can unequivocally state which was the more enjoyable. “Ludd and Isis” wins by at least the 11 miles between the two venues. Involving copious members of the Purfleet community, including children who have been practicing for eighteen months, and performed in the central section of the tripartite Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop on the hillside banks of the Thames just west of the rising span of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, it was a moving evening.

There was something of an immersive style to the event. As one enters High House Production Park, via an old (Victorian?) housing block one walks by artist-in-residence Tony Hornecker’s various two-storey edifices chocker with costumes, clutter and even bicycle-wheels populated, Edward Lear- or Lewis Carroll-like, with larger-than-life characters (all credit to those surviving the cold), before getting into the main building. Here the first section was given over to a Victorian Fair with side-shows and stalls, complete with dancers, three monks that suddenly stopped for a few seconds of co-ordinated gesture before moving away in line and in close formation, and naval drunks, stumbling around.

When led into the performing area, with seating on three sides, the audience faced with an empty space, backed by the three metal screens of the dock with the orchestral ensemble on the far left. There was definitely an air of expectancy from the largely local spectators, at least some of which had never been to an opera before. And what they got was a full-length opera which, even if taking rather a long time to set the scene, was both in praise of the historical community of Purfleet and a rather neat traversal through operatic style.

Operating their own puppets (so much better than the badly-conceived dog in ENO’s recent “A Dog’s Heart”, where between three and five operators conspired to occlude any character the dog-puppet had), baritone James Oldfield had a wood-carved ugly Ludd (God of the Thames estuary) on his right arm and soprano Tamsin Dalley bore her much more stately Isis (Goddess of the Upper Thames) similarly. Somewhat Oberon- and Titania-like, Ludd has to woo Isis back because she is annoyed of his industrialisation of the river bank. His argument that where they are – this brand new building at Purfleet – is dedicated to creativity, but he is charged to fashion an entertainment to appease his love.

Perhaps tenuously, Ludd enlists the help of theatre manager-cum-novelist Bram Stoker. The argument goes that, as Stoker sets part of “Dracula” at Pufleet, he must have known it quite well, and he – as impersonated by Andrew Slater – is a further link threading through the opera. The other two links are Edgar and Jo, young lovers that fall for each other in all four operatic interludes, however loosely connected to the area.

I liked Plaice and Taylor’s operatic history through opera buffa – in the tale of the three escaped convicts trying to woo the widow at Hill House and narrowly escaping the clutches of our hero policeman Edgar who falls for the maid Jo – via verismo (re-enacting a scene from “Faust” as one of Stoker’s actors woos a barmaid and encourages her away with him) and the ballet-pantomime (hence The Royal Ballet’s dancers) set during The Great War when, even though a German blimp is shot down over Purfleet, Jo is killed by falling debris and Edgar heads off to the trenches to die in a (silent, imagined) hail of bullets – to modern times (and a more modern musical idiom).

Here, at the opening of the Production Hall, artist Jo finds herself up against an embittered property developer Ed, reneging on his promise as to where her sculpture will be sited. It turns out that his artistic urges were suppressed as a child, and, at last, Ludd scores with Isis; a recognition that only together can industry and art progress and, with the realisation that opposites attract, the two river gods are reunited.

As performed by professional soloists but with superb community support backstage, not just chorus and movement, negotiating different styles and various costume changes, this was enormously impressive. With an enjoyable mixture of musical genres, Taylor proved adept at assimilating various styles and creating eminently lyrical lines, elegantly taken by the massed participants, the opening unclear diction notwithstanding. And the plain set didn’t remain so for long, movable platforms revealing not one but two raised levels, leading to a grand finale celebrating Purfleet and those that reside there.

It was an inspired way to celebrate The Royal Opera’s move. Once you get to the impressive building it proved a warm and welcoming venue and, although not its primary purpose, one hopes there will be opportunities for future performances there, ideally with community involvement. While its very specific genesis might mean that “Ludd and Isis” will not have further performances (at least the performance I attended was videoed for archive purposes), perhaps standard operatic fare could work in Thurrock, and I would happily take the train out there to witness it. I certainly wish that all who work in the new Production Workshop “thrive amidst the flow”.

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