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Momentous opera of thrilling tension

By Wells Journal  |  Posted: July 19, 2012

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For me, opera elevates the emotions.

It makes the ordinary seem extraordinary as characters sing a story that stirs the spirit – and can sometimes unsettle the soul. But for the opening of Wedmore Opera's world premiere of Eleanor Vale, a solitary and silent figure dressed in white with wild red hair almost flings herself onto the stage. She does not sing. Her voice is her body that twists and thrashes. Is she a temptress – or a tortured soul? We know not...and she is gone.

And so, to the first scene: a girl arrives in the village of Blackmore. What could be more ordinary? But here's the extraordinary bit: it's 1900 and she arrives on a bicycle. This is the eponymous Eleanor Vale. Played by Sarah Minns, she is lovely and lively – all lightness and laughter. "Her face was alight with the pure joy of emotion". Cycling down the slope of the stage it felt as though we in the audience were the village, and she was upon us.

The characters assembled and set the scene. It was a big cast, dressed in simple clothes of the day: the men in shirt sleeves, waistcoats and caps; the women in bonnets and dresses we slipped swiftly back to the turn of the last century.

Commissioned by Wedmore Opera to write this "Opera for Somerset", librettist Peter Cann recalled how "the story took root while I was walking on the Moor as a storm was rolling in from the sea and the clouds turned the colour of a bruise." poetry and passion are powerful partners throughout the production with some marvellously lingering lines – heightened all the more by the music set by John Barber and directed and conducted by Carolyn Doorbar.

The substantial stage of the theatre tent provided splendid scope for this story in two acts that moved apace. With simple, but symbolic scenery of five various sized backdrops, akin to the landscape of Somerset: withies on one side and the bright yellow fields and greenery on the other. Turned slightly for scene changes, or a hiding place for peeping children, they were authentic, yet modern, and very atmospheric.

In one of the most engaging scenes of the production, star Somerset ingredient plays its part. Cider, of course.

The apple anthem "Gold – golden juice of the apple" has an almost hypnotic effect as though we'd all indulged with Eleanor and the men she has bewitched. In fact, her performance in the cider barn gets her a job as assistant teacher at the local school when she is recruited by the headmaster Arthur Meadows (Adam Green). Much to the disapproval of his wife Catherine (Marie Vassiliou). The scenes with the children were charming. They sing sweetly of innocence, in the days of learning by rote, ring a ring o' roses in the playground and making corn dollies. Bonny girls in pinafores and aprons, with beribboned hair and boys in caps; they are a picture of a time gone by.

And then the mystery unravels: Eleanor is the daughter of Elizabeth, the sister of Catherine Meadows. And her daughter has returned to her home village to seek revenge. Catherine was the good girl, but 20 years ago, Elizabeth was the wild child who had a baby daughter after love in the haystacks (or some such country rural ravishing) – with Arthur Meadows.

Brandishing a sword and a sinister smile, the orchestra played the music of her madness as Eleanor promises murderous revenge on a hooded Arthur Meadows for wronging her mother. The tension mounting, the chorus chanting the rhythmic "Batter bam skimmy on the rum pumpum", she runs the blade along her own neck with the sword. But will she do it?

Darkness falls and she sets Arthur free only to disappear. In the final scene, with our hearts still in our mouths, the children tell Eleanor's friend Mathias they think they saw her "like the wind through the sedge/on the edge of the rhyne/We have seen/her/Like a cloudburst she came/sweeping down off the moor".

And in this production of thrilling tension and emotional excitement produced and directed by Marilyn Johnstone, we know that the spirit of Eleanor Vale will live on, as surely this moving and momentous opera will also live on in our memories.

This is an abridged version of the review. For the unabridged version visit www.thisissomerset.co.uk and search for Wedmore Opera.

Jude Owens

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