This review is of Kommilitonen! at the Memo Arts Centre, Barry by Welsh National Opera – Youth and appeared in The Times on July 28, 2016. This is the link: http://tinyurl.com/z9m9qvw
Tara McSwiney’s dreaming, determined Sophie Scholl — one of the leaders of the Weisse Rose movement against Hitler — was a highlight, as was Oscar Castellino’s fervent James Meredith
The heady energy, idealism and hope of student protest and activism fuelsKommilitonen!, Peter Maxwell Davies’s 2011 opera for young singers. In Welsh National Youth Opera’s stirring new production, this docu-opera is sobering and uplifting, in name a reflection on history but also a timely reminder of how close we still are to unthinkable horror.
With stories of students in three times and places — Nazi Germany, Mao’s communist China and civil rights North America — Kommilitonen! packs a lot in. It’s not subtle (note the exclamation mark) but it is impactful. Maxwell Davies’s score embraces spirituals, art song, chorale-like simplicity, brash marching bands, a smoky jazz trio and lone erhu. Underneath it all there is a squirming darkness that is ultimately channelled into a chorus praising freedom that just about escapes sentimentality.
As if David Pountney’s many-layered libretto weren’t enough to keep the audience on its toes, the director Polly Graham transforms this piece into promenade opera. Her Kommilitonen! (translated as “Young Blood!”, although it literally means “fellow students”) is set in the round. We lined the edges of the dark hall, free to walk around and follow the singers. It clarified rather than confused events, keeping us alert and involved. Our presence meant we were part of the masses, voiceless but still powerful (for better or worse).
WNO Youth Opera pulled off a memorable performance, with all the young singers showing passion and style. Tara McSwiney’s dreaming, determined Sophie Scholl — one of the leaders of the Weisse Rose movement against Hitler — was a highlight, as was Oscar Castellino’s fervent James Meredith, the African-American who challenged white supremacy in 1960s Mississippi.
On stage, the WNO orchestra and ten student instrumentalists were on eloquent form, while the conductor Alice Farnham kept a firm grip on this fluid, fast-paced production.