Nova Music Opera double-bill – Stephen McNeff’s Prometheus Drown’d / Celia McDowall’s Airborne

Stephen McNeff
Prometheus Drown’d – A music-theatre work for mezzo-soprano, actors and chamber ensemble to a libretto by Richard Williams [world premiere]
Celia McDowall
Airborne – Chamber opera in one Act and five scenes to a libretto by Andy Rashleigh [world premiere]

Prometheus Drown’d
Trelawny – Christopher Good (actor)
Young Trelawny – Grant Sterry (actor)
Shelley – Max Keeble (actor)
Jane Williams – Clare McCaldin

Johnny – Henry ManningAlice – Donna Lennard

Nova Music Opera Ensemble: Martin Smith (violin), Anna Mowat (cello), Kathryn Thomas (flute & piccolo), Catriona Scott (clarinet & bass clarinet), Rachel Wick (harp), Nigel Shipway (percussion)
George Vass

Richard Williams – Director
Kitty Hawkins – Costume designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 29 July, 2014
Venue: Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, North London

Christopher Good as Old Trelawny.George Vass, Nova Music’s tireless artistic director and conductor, has a sure sense of getting under the skin of contemporary musical trends. Last year, he and his company celebrated the Britten centenary with their fine Curlew River. This year he’s come up with a sea-and-sky double bill, one part of which marks the First World War in a particularly moving way. Both works are touring to the Presteigne and Canterbury festivals and to the Barber Institute in Birmingham.

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). Donna Lennard and Henry Manning.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.

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