Peter Gaskell reviews VIOLET, a new opera by Tom Coult with a libretto by Alice Birch commissioned by Music Theatre Wales and Britten Pears in association with Theater Ulm.
Contemporary opera may be an unfamiliar genre to many, even fans of musical theatre, and was not in the background of either Tom Coult or Alice Birch before they collaborated to compose and script Violet. This is an opera sung in English and not set in a specific time or location as is traditional, where the protagonists, often lovers, work out their fate, usually tragic, as they struggle against the prevailing social and political conventions. Unlike Tristan and Isolde, La Boheme, Tosca or Madame Butterfly, Violet is not a story of love seeking to prevail in spite of contrary circumstances, but more Nabucco, of emancipation from constraints to freedom, and lovelessness.
Co-Produced by Music Theatre Wales and Britten Pears, the premise of Violet is bold and imaginative in the same way Nick Payne’s Constellations was when it broke new ground at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012, exploring questions about time, free will, choice and death. Its subject concerns a central premise in which time is disappearing an hour per day over 24 days, disrupting the balance of nature and an orderly life. Set in an indeterminate historical period and place, the story relates the effect of famine, drought and human misery on the personal lives of the characters, the fourth of whom is the clock-keeper (Andrew MacKenzie-Wicks) whose chief function is to manage the display on the clock-tower stage-right showing the passage of time and the diminishing hours.
The dramatic narrative is set around the centre-stage dining table of a well-to-do couple, Violet (Anna Dennis) married to the controlling Felix (Richard Burkhard), supported by their maid Laura (Frances Gregory). Violet and Felix sit at opposite ends (reminiscent of the distance Putin keeps from visiting world leaders), while Felix and the clock-keeper sit adjacent to each other for their conversation about stopping the disappearance of time, indicating that Felix is more concerned with his own worldly status than any intimacy with his wife. The costumes designed by Cécile Trémolières support the narrative and character arcs, the static male characters remaining in puritanical black, while Violet’s attire changes to show more colour and variety as she comes to assert herself more, finding hope and opportunity with the disappearance of the hours that she hadn’t felt before. To reinforce the lack of reference to specific time and place, in a Vermeer-like setting, Laura initially wears a maid’s bonnet suggesting this is provincial 17th century, but then the men don Elizabethan ruffs, and Violet kneads bread on the table between plastic milk cartons and supermarket cereal packets.
The backcloth shows a skyscape that changes as the hours disappear, from blue with white clouds to garish orange, purple and black intimating the arrival of catastrophe. As we hear how orderly life is breaking down, so too the props are thrown about, aided by Laura who finally smashes the table after a tree suspended above dropping lower every day is left fallen across the domestic wreckage. The staging by director Jude Christian and designer Rosie Elnile is riveting in its focus to assist the narrative, with visual text beneath the stage in Welsh and English as helpful assistance. A particularly effective piece of staging appears on the last occasion we see the clock-keeper, up on his tower lamenting the end of time, lit from behind his shadow implies the shape of a hanged man. In view of Felix’ fate, this was a brilliant touch.
There are many moments to admire in Alice Birch’s libretto narrative – including the conversation between Felix and the clock-keeper, when Felix wants an explanation and insists the clock-keeper should give him one, which he can’t. The clock’s mechanisms are working fine but still an hour gets lost every day. This refers me again back to the premise of ‘Constellations’ where contradictory happenings can coexist across multiverses. The most magical moment comes when Violet pulls a length of flax from the hidden edge of the long table that was, previously, the centrepiece until – like everything else – it is wrecked by the entropy of time. It suggests a reference to Macbeth as she wraps it around her husband’s neck and prepares him for a dreamless sleep before he is found hanging from the clock tower; “sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care, the death of each day’s life”. Indeed this story resonates strongly with the violation of nature Shakespeare portrays in his Scottish play through this excellent allusion.
There was, however, a plot hole here and there. On Day 4, for example, we learn that 7 hours of daylight are lost as the town clock jumps from midnight to 7am. Then when light is extinguished finally and Violet has her boat ready to escape with Laura (who is afraid of drowning), we understand there are no news reports from the wider world about what has happened, yet Violet assures Laura that many boats have safely crossed the sea over the horizon without sinking. This brings me to the disappointment I felt relating to the ultimate outcome. Seeing no more of Violet – who we assume, along with Laura, has been liberated at last – follows a bizarre denouement (relayed as an animated collage) which refers to a baby born in January. If this is to Violet, how and by whom? A series of numbers is then flashed up as a part of a quiz show where a contestant must give ten answers about the side effects of sarin, or else calamity will ensue. The final quiz question is shocking: Why would a man use a gun? Answer: to shoot his children in the face. The final words in this performance offering a nihilistic message with no apparent redemption for anyone. Unlike Shostakovich’s tenth symphony – also desperate, terrifying and dark but which is ultimately triumphant in the face of impossible horrors – Violet fails to leave us with optimism about surviving catastrophe.
The narrative tension is supported consistently throughout by Tom Coult’s score, uncomfortably atonal, performed by the singers who must be credited for the hours of work they surely put in to mesh their voices with the dissonant orchestration of the London Sinfonietta conducted by Andrew Gourlay. Woodwind and brass are very much at the fore, punctuating the vocal exposition of the story, with chimes and ticking clocks to provide atmosphere and variety with some electronics. Anna Dennis is especially impressive in the title role as she hits her notes with astonishing precision.
While giving credit to the singers for maintaining their difficult lines over 90 minutes of a story about the disappearance of time, it may seem ironic how slowly the pace of the drama passes. With little obvious harmonic and melodic contrast, Violet seemed dissonant from start to finish, with no let up of the strident tension as an orderly world disintegrates. Prokofiev once said that no one wants to listen to music that’s all pepper. While after 4 hours of dissonance, the ground-breaking score of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde finally resolves with consonance – Violet does not. Still, its narrative potential is intriguingly bold even if the denouement is ultimately disappointing. Its staging was marvellous, and its performances commendable. With a shrewd avoidance of specificity of time or place, it opens itself up for the possibility of long-term appearance in the canon of opera.
Music Theatre Wales Tom Coult Tom Coult
Find out more about Music Theatre Wales’ VIOLET here.