In Parenthesis Bell

Welsh National Opera celebrated its 70th anniversary with a newly commissioned opera. In Parenthesis is based on David Jones’ prose poem of 1937 about his experiences in the First World War, and this production marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme Iain Bell’s score for the opera calls on the full resources of WNO and its chorus, celebrating the sense of ‘company’ that has always been so central its identity.

What though of the choice of Jones’ text, one of the great masterpieces of high modernism, notoriously dense, multi-layered and shifting in perspective from almost one line to another?

The two Bards with the women’s Chorus of Remembrance

Like many other operatic settings of great literature, it is only a starting point for something quite different. Librettists David Antrobus and Emma Jenkins felt ‘clarity of story-telling was paramount’; picking ‘one thread out of the myriad in the poem’, they have attempted to present Jones’ journey as ‘an Orphic rite of passage’.

Donald Maxwell as the larger-than-life Dai Great Coat

The result is a radically different and more two-dimensional experience than Jones’ original and one that, on opening night, seemed to resonate strongly with the audience at Cardif ’s Wales Millennium Centre. It’s easy to see the text’s appeal to WNO for its anniversary: although London-born, David Jones was half Welsh and his art is shot through with references to Wales’ mythology, medieval history and literature.

In Parenthesis concerns the odyssey of Private John Ball, the sole survivor of the Welch regiment whose members were wiped out at the advance on Mametz Wood in 1916.

Musical language shifts constantly between a heightened expressionism

This is composer Iain Bell’s third opera, and his response to the text is theatrical and thoroughly professional with a sharp instinct for the relationship between words and vocal line. The musical language shifts constantly between a heightened expressionism that might not have been out of place in the Germany of 1916; and in the final mystical scenes, there is a pantheistic ecstasy reminiscent of Tippet’s Midsummer Marriage.

It’s a colourful score, not afraid to make large gestures, but perhaps only really begins to approach something of Jones’ inward vision in the opera’s closing scene in Mametz Wood. Robert Innes Hopkins’ monolithic stage design is an enclosed foreground looking up to a large sky, constantly transformed to accommodate the changing emotions of the text.

Andrew Bidlack, magnifi cent in the challenging lead role of Private John Ball

The production, by WNO’s artistic director David Pountney skillfully guides the work though its many emotional stages. Andrew Bidlack, as Private John Ball, scaled magnificently what must be one of the most ambitious leading operatic roles in recent times, his flexible tenor encompassing not only the character’s bumbling attempts at soldiering but the ecstasy of his inner vision.

Nature of the opera

The narrative is framed by two Bards representing Britain and Germany, Peter Coleman-Wright and Alexandra Deshorties who guide the action forward. Modelled on Jones’ 1941 drawing Britannia and Germania Embracing, their roles look back and are similar in conception to the chorus in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia.

The nature of the opera means that this is a very male-heavy cast featuring a varied line-up of smaller parts: Donald Maxwell is a boastful and larger-than-life Dai Greatcoat, representing the soldier who has fought in every battle stretching back thousands of years; Mark Le Brocq’s Sargeant Snell is a suitably loud and aggressive presence; the smaller parts are admirably taken by George Humphreys (Lieutenant Jenkins), Marcus Farnsworth (Lance Corporal Lewis) and Joe Roche (Private Watcyn). Carlo Rizzi negotiated the many twists and turns of the score with passion and commitment.

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