A boy and his mother
10/23/2003 - and 24 October 2003
Param Vir: Ion
Michael Bennett (Ion), Rita Cullis (Creusa), Gwion Thomas (Hermes/Servant) Mark Richardson (Old Servant), Nuala Willis (Pythia), Louise Walsh (Athene), Graeme Danby (Xuthus), Giselle Minns, Tara Harrison, Alison Kettlewell, Trine Bastrup Moller, Emily Bauer-Jones (Servants)
Michael Rafferty (conductor), Michael McCarthy (director)
Music Theatre Wales
Param Vir's Ion has taken its time coming into the world. First commissioned by Almeida Opera, it wasn't quite ready for its scheduled premiere at Aldeburgh in 2000 and was presented as a work in progress with a narrator linking the completed sections, which turn out to have been the prologue and first two of four scenes. The commission was topped up by Music Theatre Wales, Opéra National du Rhin and the Berlin Festival, and Vir completed the opera for this year, for performance by Music Theatre Wales, a splendid company that runs on a sniff of money and specializes in new operas. The completed work, although more polished that its preview version, is still, alas, a wonderful play with music that does no harm rather than an opera. A part of the problem may be that the original play, which the librettist David Lan previously adapted with success for the National Theatre Studio, is already so close to traditional opera in form as well as content that the librettist and composer don't have the courage to try to take it apart and remake it completely.
The play itself is a classic romance, which Euripides probably cut from the whole cloth, involving a young man who does not know who his parents, a woman in search of the child she abandoned years ago and a man who just wants to continue his family in an orderly manner. Set in Delphi, an international sacred place, the plot pushes both at the local obsession of its original Athenian audience with the remote and recent origins of their citizens and at the everyday experience of growing up with parents who it is embarrassing to think you are related to. Lacking the founding hero that other cities had, the Athenians claimed to be descended from a snake-king Erechtheus who sprang from the earth itself of Attica; the hostility to foreigners that this potentially encouraged was exploited by the oligarchic government that confiscated the property and removed the privileges of resident non-citizens, and required citizens to have two citizen parents. Ion is quite happy being "sprung from the earth", quite literally since he was as an infant twice rescued from an underground cave, and also in the sense of having no ancestry (the traditional alien's comment on Athenian autochthony). When he meets Creusa, he becomes aware of the power and misery of parental love, and after initial sympathy for her he become extremely uncomfortable, and even more so when her husband Xuthus, prompted by Apollo's oracle, claims him as his son. There is more plot (Creusa tries to murder Ion) but, in effect, Ion becomes a teenager, furious at being related to these people who he never asked to be related to, and finally comes to terms with his parents using some (divinely assisted) double-think. The psychological insights, however, are worked out within a visually and verbally rich texture of mythological illustration and symbolism that is an integral part of the play.
Strauss and Hofmannsthal tried to write operas that combined bourgeois verisimilitude with mythological structures, but they worked in the over coded musical tracks of Wagner, and in a theatrical tradition of lavish decor and emotion, at times in that order, that was closely related to the high tide of silent cinema. Die Aegyptische Helena is pure Euripides. Vir and Lan, on the other hand, seem to have aimed for something more lucid and cerebral, with clear-cut characters and motivations and almost eighteenth-century sentiments. The music is strong on rhythmic and instrumental colour, heavy on foursquare underlying motifs, and not particularly word- or singer-friendly. There is a touch of Glass, and an echo of Sondheim's Frogs in one chorus, as part of a more general sense of anti-pastiche. Both music and elegant production seem to reach the lowest common denominator between Hindu epic and Bollywood theological movies on the one hand and the polytheistic world of Euripides and Greco-Roman fiction on the other. The dark underside of the play, and the dangerous excess that Greek drama aims to purge, are controlled by tasteful music.
Nevertheless, Lan's version of the play survives, and the music has its moments, mostly rather conventional "operatic" ones. Rita Cullis as Creusa had the best of them, in a sequence of dramatic scenes, and she was very moving throughout, in a different league from the other characters. Michael Bennett as Ion was a sweet man-infant dealing with anger and confusion, and Graeme Danby was pompous and slightly sinister as Xuthus. Both have fine voices, but Gwion Thomas alone made every word audible, which was useful when he delivered the prologue as Hermes and explained what was going on. The rest of the cast were well-chosen and characterized, with Nuala Willis a scarily batty Pythia.
Michael Rafferty led the orchestra in a strikingly energetic and coherent performance. Any lack of impact was certainly not their fault.