This spring Welsh National Opera brings its original work Blaze of Glory to stages across Wales. Gary Raymond was at the press night to see this story of a male voice choir brought to life.
Blaze of Glory has been a long time coming, and I don’t mean that it’s taken a while for Welsh National Opera to produce an original work of any sort that tells a story of the country in the company’s name. The creation of Blaze of Glory itself has been a long and winding road. Covid, of course, has played its part in the pace of things; but that aside, the origin story is a point of interest worth exploring for a moment as it suggests there was something pre-ordained about what Blaze of Glory was to become. In 2018, WNO devised Rhondda Rips it Up, a raucous and chaotic (in a good way) telling of the story of Margaret Haig Thomas, suffragette, post-box-botherer, and fully paid-up member of the aristocracy (you may know her better as Lady Rhondda). It seems that it was here, in the revelry of the after show party at Newport’s Riverfront theatre, that, as writer Emma Jenkins recalls in her programme notes, the idea for Blaze was born. And what was the idea? To tell the story of a Male Voice Choir.
And that heady attitude, with backs-slapped and glasses raised, is the most winning ingredient of Blaze of Glory. Well, that and the singing, of course. What is fascinating is that the story Blaze of Glory tells seems to have not progressed much further than that initial light bulb moment. With so much time elapsed, so much talent and resource to pull on, Blaze of Glory is nothing we haven’t seen before. Working class community faces a struggle. They come together. They face the challenge. They overcome. End with a musical number. We’ve seen it on film more times than I can count. My goodness, how the middle classes love to tell this story.
I don’t want to get into a head count of how many Welsh people have been involved in the creative executive on Blaze of Glory, and I’m not going to second-guess just how Welsh the many Englanders involved in the creation of it feel, but the opera is packed with stereotypes, in the form of character, story, and theme. The use of the Dowlais Male Voice Choir in the aisles of the stalls to add stereophonic depth to the choral passages seems to keep any pretence of inclusion of the Welsh working-class experience exactly where Blaze of Glory wants it to be: at the periphery. But it’s difficult to be po-faced about this. Blaze of Glory is a light comedy.
The argument in favour of this light touch is that Blaze of Glory is at its best when it is light. The nods – and they are not more than nods – to weightier themes are never fully realised or worked through to any kind of resonant conclusion. Even the closing of the pit, which hangs over the story like a silhouetted headstock, is just a plot point. Paul Robeson stands as an icon, his presence inferred and then promised to unite all strands for the climax; but a bit more Proud Valley wouldn’t have gone amiss here. If Rhondda Rips It Up was “more a party than a sermon”, then Blaze of Glory is more Call the Midwife than Brassed Off, although the narrative arc is very much the latter.
But shelve any hang-ups about the lack of political seriousness, the story we’ve seen countless times before, the stock characters, and the baggy second half, and Blaze of Glory is a good fun. The comedy may be sedate for the most part, but it contributes to a general warmth that plays into the Sunday night prime time vibe. Musically, David Hackbridge Johnson explores the landscape of 1950s music with an expert eye – the score moves from choral to orchestral to cinematic to teeny-bop without any jarring moments, and the subplot that involves the yodelling skills of a competitor from the next valley over provides the most subversive and interesting segment of the entire show.
The cast is excellent, bringing a mischievous energy to a production that at times felt a bit nervous of its own decision to be a light comedy. Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts is great as the avuncular choir master, Dafydd Pugh, and Rebecca Evans gets a chance to strut her comedic stuff and swipe at a few stuffy men with her handbag. Angharad Morgan, Nafissatou Batu Daramy, and Angharad Lyddon shine as a chorus of young Welsh women, Bronwen, Branwen, and Blodwen (yes, they have a bit of fun with Welsh names in this show). Themba Mvula is an arresting performer in an underdeveloped part, Fergal Mostyn-Williams is a standout as the yodelling Bryn, and Adam Gilbert plays the part of the stoic prodigy as the stock boy-who-goes-on-to-make-something-of-himself-in-London, Emlyn. Director Caroline Clegg mounts a fast-paced, canny production that is, ultimately, more than the sum of its parts.
In the spirit of which it is surely meant to be watched, Blaze of Glory is a bit of fun. Where it reaches for something more lasting and profound it burns a little less bright. The inclusion of Robeson as a standard-bearer for the backdrop of labour unions struggles, as well as something about inclusivity (there is a tentative mention of a gay relationship, and Mvula’s Anthony gets a solo about how he’s been accepted as a black American in the white Welsh valley) feel more like the play things of the Feel Good Gods than any sincere attempts to shine a light on the issues of the day. But, as is always the case – and WNO know this, right? – it would be a cold cold heart that doesn’t stir at the sound of a Welsh Male Voice Choir.
Blaze of Glory runs at venues across Wales until the end of May. Information about performances and tickets is available here.