Our Man in Havana

Our Man in Havana

Bramble – Telman Guzhevsky
Dr Hasselbacher – Ørjan Hartveit
Milly – Helen-Mary Jordan
Beatrice – Catharine Rogers
Segura – Richard Naxton
Lopez – Alex Ellar
Hawthorn – Rob Little
The Chief – Chris Wray
Savage – Jake White
Miss Jenkinson – Rosalind Strobel
Carter – Tristan Stocks
Hopper – Mike Bunting
McDougal – Tim Hobman

Chorus and Orchestra of Trinity College of Music Opera Company
Gregory Rose

Richard Williams – director
David Collis – designer
Arnim Friess – lighting

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 July, 2004
Venue: Greenwich Theatre, London

One of the largely unexplained mysteries of the last two decades is the neglect into which the music of Malcolm Williamson has fallen. Despite having been Master of the Queen’s Music for nearly 30 years until his death early last year (and apparently enjoying a good rapport with HM), his substantial output – curtailed several years before by a debilitating stroke – has latterly been little heard. Few of the recordings made during the 1960s and ’70s have been reissued. Yet his 70th birthday concert in 2001, which Williamson was happily able to attend, was a stark reminder of the quality of this composer’s music at its best – such that a major reassessment can be thought well overdue.

The point was reaffirmed with Trinity College Opera Company’s welcome revival of Our Man in Havana. Premiered 41 years ago at Sadler’s Wells, it launched Williamson on a decade of theatrical composing that encompassed everything from full-length opera to ‘cassations’ involving audience participation. At just under two hours, Our Man is very much in the former category, yet much of its appeal lies in the resourcefulness with which Williamson synthesises ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ elements into a cohesiveand compelling whole; alternating serially- and ethnically-derived music with a disarming conviction.

Based on the 1958 novel by Graham Greene (made famous by the film starring Alec Guinness), Our Man in Havana has been described as a comédie noir, which sums up its entertaining yet increasingly ominous nature. The idea of a ‘little man’ being roped into the British secret service holds pointers both for its own day – with the Castro-led revolution in Cuba and British spy defections of the period – and, it hardly needs saying, our own. Indeed, the timing of this revival – days before the publication of the Butler Report – could not have been more apt, and the pertinence of Bramble’s drawings of vacuum cleaners being taken as evidence, in the minds of his masters, of the existence of ‘WMD’ can have been lost on few in the audience. Moreover, the invention and subsequent ‘removal’ of sub-agents indicates an obfuscation of truth and illusion such as is hardly limited to the world of fiction.

Musically, the opera ranges freely according to the needs of the scenario. Four of the scenes are at least partly set in Havana’s ‘Wonder-Bar’, and the opportunity to utilise Cuban dance metres is taken up with relish by Williamson. The music of the first act is predominantly light and lyrical, with the ‘Blessed Saint Seraphina’ aria for Bramble’s daughter Milly a number such as could have fitted easily into a musical of the time (interesting to note Sondheim’s first major show, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, had opened two years earlier). A decisive change in mood comes towards the end of Act Two, with the destruction of the flat belonging to Bramble’s friend Dr Hasselbacher, and the former’s realisation that his ‘playing at spying’ – ostensibly to pay for Milly’s education – has grave implications for those close to him. The final act then builds to a powerful denouement – with Bramble suddenly taking control of his situation by contriving a fateful meeting with enemy agent Carter, then returning to conclude his game of draughts with the sinister captain of police Segura.

While not difficult in terms of musical idiom or vocal demands, Our Man places real responsibility on the main singers – both individually and in numerous ensembles. The cast assembled here acquitted itself ably. While sometimes strident in tone, Telman Guzhevsky made a convincing case for Bramble as the put-upon vacuum cleaner salesman who makes the transition from victim of circumstance to master of his own destiny. The frequent recourse to arioso writing was handled with evident skill, and in English cleanly and precisely enunciated. As his main sidekick, the ultimately tragic role of Dr Hasselbacher was sympathetically realised by Ørjan Hartveit – his advice to “preserve your freedom through lying” a phrase that returns to haunt Bramble as the consequences of his actions become clearer, and his remembrance of happier times in his youth an expressive highpoint of the evening.

Helen-Mary Jordan was an effervescent though never merely frivolous Milly, Catharine Rogers a compassionate Beatrice – Bramble’s assistant who develops deeper feelings as the circumstances of their association intensify, and Richard Naxton a nasty and unrelenting Segura. Tristan Stocks made much of the small role of Carter, whose confrontation with Bramble mixed drama with pathos as the latter’s first shot manages only to break his favourite pipe: Williamson distilling a poignancy from the situation that attests to an understanding of the expressive potential of opera rare in any era.

The significant choral contribution was vocally well handled, if awkwardly acted. No fault of director Richard Williams, who made generally effective use of stage-space, and conveyed much the feel of the opera’s setting without labouring its quality of decadence in the twilight of the Battista regime. If the pit-orchestra was somewhat under-powered as regards strings, the players brought character and enthusiasm to their parts – clearly galvanised by the example of Gregory Rose’s always-attentive direction. This is an opera whose emotion must never exude portentousness, and Rose ensured that the interaction of stage activity and musical drama was kept taut and flexible.

So, an undoubted coup for Trinity College to have revived a major work by a composer whose output as a whole is starting to show signs of revival. 2006 will mark the 75th anniversary of Williamson’s birth – at which time it is to be hoped that both this and subsequent operas will enjoy rehabilitation: in which case, it will be worth remembering which organisation made the first move!

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