Ion Michael Bennett
Creusa Rita Cullis
Hermes/Servant Gwion Thomas
Old Servant Mark Richardson
Pythia Nuola Willis
Athene Louise Walsh
Xuthus Graeme Danby
Music Theatre Wales
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 23 October, 2003
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
The UK premiere seven years ago of Param Vir’s Snatched by the Gods and Broken Strings gave notice of a composer whose understanding of the possibilities of music-theatre was second to none among composers of his generation.
Now, after a lengthy gestation which saw it presented as a work in progress at the Almeida and Aldeburgh festivals, comes the premiere of the evening-length opera Ion – which, in most respects, consolidates and extends the achievement of those earlier one-acters.
Based on a seldom-performed but, in terms of characterisation and incident, self-sufficient play by Euripides, Ion treats the legend of childless couple Creusa, queen of Athens, and her husband Xuthus – who, on a ’pilgrimage’ to the shrine of Apollo at Delphi, discover that the child Creusa conceived years before by the god and then abandoned is none other than Ion, keeper of the shrine. Various machinations and treacheries follow, before Ion is reconciled with his parents and takes his place as heir to the royal house.
Working to a compact and forward-moving libretto devised by David Lan, Vir has fashioned an opera in a prologue and four scenes which charts the course of the drama in direct and involving terms. The chamber orchestra creates an intricate web of associations, with certain instruments representing particular characters to a degree that heightens dramatic profile. Less convincing is the deriving, from basic intervallic cells, of harmonic entities to point up the various strata of society – gods, nobility, servants – within the overall musical structure. Vir’s harmonic palette, though never overly complex, is of an intricacy that makes differentiation at a more specific level hard to take-in aurally.
What is undoubted is the naturalness of phrasing and the singing qualities of Vir’s vocal lines. Such at least was conveyed by a strong cast, fronted by the regal yet fallible Creusa of Rita Cullis, and Graeme Danby’s strong and sympathetic Xuthus. Michael Bennett has the range though if not always the smoothness of tone for the title role, but assumes centre-stage effortlessly when required. Mark Richardson is warmly if wrong-headedly supportive as the Old Servant, while Louise Walsh is commanding as Athene – her timely intervention prevents disaster befalling the Athenian house. Nuola Willis as Pythia, and Gwion Thomas as Hermes each brings a distinctive and appealing humanity to their roles, while the five servants makes a well-balanced female quintet – used resourcefully throughout the drama.
Michael McCarthy’s direction makes the most of the Linbury stage’s intimacy, complemented by simple but distinctive sets from Simon Banham and often subtle lighting from Ace McCarron.
As before in these Music Theatre Wales productions, Michael Rafferty gets the right instrumental balance and draws excellent playing from an ensemble featuring such seasoned musicians as flautist Kathryn Thomas and pianist Stephen Gutman. Whether or not an opera destined to last, Ion makes for a diverting evening’s theatre, and is well worth catching on tour in the coming weeks.
- Further tour performances on 4, 9, 13, 16, 29 and 30 November and December 9
- Music Theatre Wales