Three Water Plays
Brigomeïdé – Jane Harrington
Prince – John Graham Hall
Leviathan – Stephen Richardson
The Angel that Troubled the Waters
The Angel – Jane Harrington
Mistaken Invalid – John Graham Hall
Newcomer – Stephen Richards
The Angel on the Ship
Minna – Jane Harrington
Van – John Graham Hall
Sam – Stephen Richardson
Charles Edwards – Direction and design
Gabrielle Dalton – Costumes
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 13 July, 2007
Venue: Almeida Opera, Islington, London
As the latter title suggests, Wilder’s plays are brief, and laconic interpretations of human reactions in archetypal situations. Thus “Leviathan” – in which the drowning Prince refuses to save himself by selling his soul to the mermaid, in the belief that such things just do not happen; then “The Angel that Troubled the Waters” – an angel offers assistance to the physically ill but not the mentally ill, ostensibly on the grounds that the latter have to ‘save themselves’ through inner motivation; finally, “The Angel on the Ship” – the survivors of a shipwreck create a deity from the figurehead of their vessel, only to disown it when help is at hand. Three ‘morality plays’, when viewed in the context of what is an essentially post-moral society, that take-on an added irony and ambivalent humour.
An irony and humour that were, presumably, reworked into German for the purposes of these operas (though a librettist as such is not mentioned in the programme book), then re-translated back into English for the present production (again, no details were given). Not in itself a problem, though it doesraise the question of just how far removed this staging is from Glanert’s perspective and, moreover, from Wilder’s intentions. As it was, the operas progressed from the eloquent but essentially static rhetoric of the first, through the earnest but indecisive soul-searching of the second, to the earthy humour of the third (why is it assumed that sailors always speak and act like stereotypical yokels?).
Individually insubstantial, the trilogy was yet more than the sum of its parts – vindicating Glanert’s decision to return to a piece composed back in 1986 and add two further instalments in 1994 and 1995. The change in musical language was appreciable, too, with the vocal stiffness and generalised neo-modern instrumental texture of the first opera giving way to something altogether more finely-wrought and theatrically pliable in the second and third. On the basis of these, Glanert has evolved a vivid and engaging dramaturgy – one that takes hold (albeit intermittently) of the listener’s attention.
As directed and designed by Charles Edwards, with costumes by Gabrielle Dalton, the production made up in stagecraft what it lacked in imagination. The storm-tossed seascape that was transformed into the pool at the side at the health clinic, then into the ‘three in a boat’ sortie – all capably and realised without fuss. Vocally, the cast of three was wholly committed, though a tendency to over-project should have been resisted in the Almeida acoustic. Jane Harrington was equal to the high-flown character of Brigomeïdé and The Angel, but rather over-egged the role of Minna. John Graham Hall was recklessly defiant as the Prince, properly fervent as the Mistaken Invalid and bluffly humorous as Van. Stephen Richardson brought deadpan wit to the ‘walk-on’ part of Leviathan, then detracted from the part of the Newcomer with his grating delivery, before rendering Sam with the right stolid consistency. Most of the parts were sung from the score – hardly a failing given they had been learned for just one outing.
In music where the instrumentation is often more characterful than the vocal writing, it helped to have the Almeida Ensemble playing with verve and assurance – expertly directed by Richard Bernas, whose achievements in this theatre over the past quarter-century hardly need reiterating. A flawed but diverting evening; hopefully a full-length Glanert opera will make it to the UK in due course.