The Young Man with the Carnation

The Young Man with the Carnation [World première]

Charlie Despard – Peter van Hulle (tenor)
Woman / Prostitute / Laura Despard – Emma Selway (mezzo-soprano)
Young Man / Sailor / God – Andrew Slater (baritone)
Waiter – Daniel Jordon (bass)

John Fulljames – director
Robin Rawsthorne – design
Giuseppe di Lorio – lighting design

The Opera Group Ensemble
Patrick Bailey

Five Distances for Five Instruments
The Truth Will Set You Free
The Iron Cockerel Sings

Gallimaufry Ensemble [David Cuthbert, flute; Holly Fawcett, oboe; Tom Rodda, clarinet; Peter Sparks, clarinet/bass clarinet; Siona Crosdale, bassoon; Nick Woolmark, horn]


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 June, 2002
Venue: Almeida at King’s Cross, Omega Place, London

Nominated for a Faber ’Millennium Commission’ and with a full-length opera scheduled for Zurich in 2003/4, Edward Rushton is clearly emerging as a composer and musical dramatist of substance. It helps in this instance to have a libretto so effectively fashioned, by Tom Smith, from the short story by Isak Dinesen (aka Out of Africa’s Karen Blixen) – concrete in its outlining of incidents that the music can then articulate.

And there’s a host of incidents, tangible and imagined, to be evoked here. The idea of creativity so self-consuming that reality becomes the servant to art is not new to opera (witness Henze’s Elegy to Young Lovers of 1961), but Rushton’s take is understated and revealing. The central protagonist in all senses is Charlie Despard – a successful young writer doubting the worth of his second novel, and by extension his whole existence. A series of coincidences – notably the appearance of the Young Man of the title – and chance encounters sees him reconciled with both life and art, as well as furnishing the material for a new story.

In an opera of only 45 minutes duration, narrative action has to be clear and to the point. Rushton’s vocal writing has a certain functional consistency – avoiding musical delineation of the characters but carrying the text effortlessly and projecting well over the 11-strong ensemble. This offers considerable scope both for precise tonal patterning and diverse colouristic resource, even if the trombone contribution overstepped the line between the effective and the gratuitous.

As Despard, Peter van Hulle is focused if not ingratiating of tone, conveying the desperation and uncertainty of his role – unwilling to take action while increasingly convinced that fate will direct his future. Andrew Slater was impressive as the Sailor whose narrative acts as a catalyst to the refocusing of Despard’s creative energies, while his reappearance as the ’enabling’ presence of God is a coup de théâtre made more so by John Fulljames’s keen direction and Giuseppe di Lorio’s vivid lighting. Emma Selway’s warm-toned, sympathetic Laura was especially apt at the close.

The set was split mid-stage with the ensemble, which Patrick Bailey directed with the same control of dramatic tension and attention to detail evident in The Opera Group’s revival of Shostakovich’s The Nose last year. Engaging music and a worthwhile production – worth catching on tour.

Late-night wind music, especially after an opera, has a long and distinguished currency, and the Gallimaufry Ensemble provided a recital fit for the occasion. Berio’s Riccorenze is a virtual five-part ’sequenza’, drawing the players into an animated but tightly co-ordinated discourse with outbursts of lyrical intensity towards the close. Five Distances reinvents the quintet on Birtwistle’s own, inimitable terms – the instrumental interplay often having the illusion of improvised freedom. Robert Fokkens’s thoughtful and harmonically-dense study in opposites saw the ensemble expand to a sextet, in which guise John Woolrich’s fast-moving capriccio provided a bracing conclusion.

Excellent playing and an attractive programme that ought to have attracted more of the opera audience back from the bar. The Gallimaufry’s Park Lane recital at the Purcell Room next January is eagerly awaited.

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