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In Parenthesis by Welsh National Opera - Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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New Opera Recounts World War One Scenes
Welsh National Opera (WNO) is marking its 70th anniversary with the old and the new. In Parenthesis is a brand new production created for the WNO's special year.

In Parenthesis, WNO, Welsh National Opera, Birmingham hippodrome, review
War scenes in the new WNO opera In Parenthesis


Classical music writer Geoff Read was at Birmingham Hippodrome on June 10 for the performance to give his verdict. The show continues on its tour to London's Royal Opera House from June 29 to July 1.

Iain Bell's new opera In Parenthesis commemorates two events – one a celebration, the 70th anniversary season of WNO, the other an inglorious memorial, the centenary of the carnage at Mametz Wood during the hideous Battle of the Somme; it is also part of the UK's 14-18-Now veneration.

Its conception was the epic prose-poem of the same name by artist turned poet David Jones, said by T S Eliot to be 'a work of genius'. With such an endorsement it is perhaps surprising that it has not (I believe) attracted other musical theatre impresarios. So as new opera productions continue to diminish, it's plaudits all round to David Pountney and the WNO for their commitment to encouraging fresh talent to their art form – and so soon after Figaro gets a Divorce. On the whole the result can be regarded as a success.

Praise too for the husband and wife partnership of librettists, David Antrobus and Emma Jenkins, who seeing the potential of In Parenthesis, have enthusiastically and expertly managed to prune the complexities of it into manageable proportions, whilst retaining the allusive nature of the beast.

In Parenthesis, WNO, Welsh National Opera, Birmingham hippodrome, review
WNO has created the new opera for its anniversary


To interweave the real conflict of the First World War with the hallucinations of main protagonist Private John Ball, they choose to present him as Orpheus, descending into the wasteland of war before a regeneration process takes effect. To assist the continuity and drama two new roles are created: The Bard of Britannia and The Bard of Germania, inspired by one of Jones' most famous paintings.

Scholarly references from a wide spectrum abound within the text, from the medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin to the bible and classical literature. The production team of director Pountney, designer Robert Innes Hopkins and lighting by Malcom Rippeth, did a sterling job, crafting graphic representations of the narrative.

Each of the six basic scenes were quite explicit. In the first half we had the two poppy wreaths and introductory remembrance chorus as the opposing Bards welcome one another postlude. Then after their square-bashing sessions, the latest recruits of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers don their 'grey government socks' as they traumatically leave 'Dear Old Blighty' – reluctant to earn their 'shilling'.

The frightening artillery sounds as Lieutenant Jenkins' battalion move through France was likened to 'jaguar coughs' with the air above sounding like 'a million bees hiving to the stars'. We see the dishing out of rations on Christmas morning 1915 and the bright mood in the café after the interval of Sospan bach gave way to the unknown frontline destination ahead, symbolised by the application of blindfolds to the eyes of the squaddies.

As The Nullah, Somme is reached (July 1916) more horrors unfold, the Queen of the Woods and her Dryads with their twigged headgear make terrorising angels of death, before reappearing in brilliant lighting and Ascot hats to begin the regeneration process.

In Parenthesis, WNO, Welsh National Opera, Birmingham hippodrome, review
In Parenthesis was performed at Birmingham Hippodrome


Bell's music balanced the tonal to the discordant and generally complemented the activity on stage, contributing to the drama – tense and anticipatory when awaiting the next bombardment of metal, cacophonous and bellicose during actual engagements.

Shades of Britten were present, especially during the atmospherically charged interludes, episodes that made any scene transitions inconspicuous. These excerpts demonstrated the excellence of the WNO orchestra, under the motivating baton of Carlo Rizzi. Scoring for the vocals was however I thought mixed.

Both male and female choruses were up to their usual high standard: while the platoon consistently displayed their camaraderie, humour and compassion, the ladies delivered a moving Marian hymn of Salve Regina to close the performance.

Making his European debut as Ball, American high tenor Andrew Bidlack carried all before him, his 'kind of blessedness' aria a high point, a poignant mix of fear and faith. Bidlack's duet with buddie Lance. They provided another agreeable duet, amusingly boasting of past glories from Cain to the Black Prince, with passing mention of building 'a shit-house for Artaxerxes'.

Peter Coleman-Wright was a rather staid Britannia, possibly due to the lack of colour in his lines, but I detected little variation after he had exchanged his dog collar for an HQ Officer's uniform. Alexandra Deshorties was equally unimpressive as Germania although her costume change via Barmaid to The Queen of the Woods was galvanising, almost Walküre-like in deed and voice, indiscriminately killing off Ball's mates.

A brief cameo from Simon Crosby Buttle as a German soldier, Brahms' Es ist ein Ros entsprungen on Christmas morn was delightful.

Rating: 7/10

In Parenthesis will be at London's Royal Opera House from June 29 to July 1. For more information visit the WNO website.

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Why? See a brand new opera about WW1
When: Specific Dates until July 1
Phone: 44 (0)29 2063 5000
Where: Birmingham Hippodrome and London Royal Opera House
Cost: From £16.50
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