Cath Barton was at the Richard Burton Theatre (RWCMD) to review The Archaeologist’s Wife, an opera directed by Peter Morgan Barnes about Tessa Wheeler.
The excavation of the remains of the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon is an unexpected topic for an opera, one which threatened to be dry as dust but which actually offered plenty of scope for a drama. The prolific dramaturg Peter Morgan Barnes was commissioned by the First Campus Project at the University of South Wales (funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, sourced by First Campus) to develop a community opera about Tessa Wheeler’s dig in 1926. Explaining his approach in a talk before this first performance of the resultant piece, he spoke of a search for truth in the coming together of history and art. This parallels Tessa Wheeler’s focus in her work on the establishment of forensic points, unlike her husband, Mortimer, who was interested in storytelling through archaeology.
The work which Peter Morgan Barnes and his team have crafted is not so much a story of the dig at Caerleon as a study in anxiety – Tessa Wheeler’s own anxiety about her work and her relationship with Mortimer, alongside the poverty, hunger and anger which were prevalent in Wales in 1926.
The opera is a pasticcio, a work made from pre-existing music, something which was common in the baroque and classical periods, but is rarely done today other than in musical theatre; the jukebox musical Mamma Mia!, which recycles ABBA songs, being a prime example. Just last month though, in the London Handel Festival, two pasticcio works by Handel – Giove in Argo and Catone in Utica – were performed for the first time since their original London productions in the 18th century. During his time in London, Handel programmed one pasticcio per season, recycling some of his own work and also including arias from other composers. This was long before copyright laws, when appropriation of one composer’s work by another was considered fair game. For The Archaeologist’s Wife, music was selected from Shostakovich – for the scenes in 1926 Wales – and Kurt Weill – for two sequences from the time when the Romans were building in Caerleon.
The production was impressive for a performance piece developed over only three months with a cast of just seventeen amateur singers working alongside four professionals. Peter Morgan Barnes, musical arranger Seán Doherty and RWCMD Community Choirs conductor Sara Terrell have moulded a piece specific to the strengths of the performers, adapting music and words during the process to suit individual voices. The generosity of the professional singers towards the amateurs with whom they worked – none of whom had performed in an opera before – was palpable in the performance. They were neither treated nor heard as less important, and all credit to them and the whole team for that.
All this said, it was a shame that the music did not deliver more. The principals were strong, particularly David Hansford, whose fine singing and exceptional diction made the character of Mortimer Wheeler come across as stronger than that of his wife Tessa (not, I think, what was intended). However the four principals never had an opportunity to sing as a quartet, or even in duets, and the chorus sections were almost entirely in unison. This conservative approach meant that while the singing was strong, the opportunity to heighten the drama by adding harmonies was missed.
Although the music of Shostakovich and Kurt Weill was selected because of those two composers’ own involvement in political struggles, the arrangements were also nearly all rather too jolly to convey fully the political tensions of the opera’s action – rather more Palm Court Orchestra at times than historical epic. The exception was the lyrical music for the scene of Tessa’s fretful nights of worry and bad dreams, which gave welcome variety to the pace of the piece. The Hillman Quartet and pianist Seho Lee (who was also repetiteur for the project) gave solid instrumental support throughout.
As an addition to the laudable enterprise of this project, a film documentary is being made by Digichemistry, a television and film production company directed by Craig Oats based in Cardiff. The performance was being filmed for inclusion in the eventual documentary. The down side of this for the audience was that sometimes the action was seen better by the film camera than by us! The seating was in the round, in a formation which might, deliberately or not I don’t know, have been recreating the shape of the grassed remains at Caerleon. This might end up looking good on film, but meant that often we were looking at the performers’ backs or craning our necks to see them at all, as well as being extremely close to the action and, at times, moving scenery.
I am sure that the development of The Archaeologist’s Wife will have been both enthralling and very rewarding for the whole creative team and for the historians and students they apparently worked with in the process. The audience at a performance can only get a small part of that reward, but that does not lessen its value as a creative enterprise. I look forward to seeing the completed documentary.
Photograph of the photograph of Tessa Wheeler and Mortimer by Craig Oats
The Archaeologist’s Wife
A pasticcio opera
Music by Shostakovich and Kurt Weill arranged by Seán Doherty
Director and librettist: Peter Morgan Barnes
Conductor: Sara Terrell
Britta Glaser and Amanda Wagg (mezzos)
Aled Powys Williams (tenor)
David Hansford (bass)
Community choir/ The Hillman Quartet/ Seho Lee (piano)
Richard Burton Theatre, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, April 9 2015 (premiere)
Cath Barton won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella with The Plankton Collector, which is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020, and in early 2021 Retreat West Books will publish her collection of short stories inspired by the work of the Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch.