Up the revolution! – Mike Smith

(This review appeared in the Arts Scene in Wales, by Mike Smith, July 30,2016. link: http://tinyurl.com/jv582rn)

It is an interesting juxtaposition – the late Peter Maxwell Davies’ interwoven stories of young people who make a stand against conforming, convention and even culture performed in a great Establishment monument, the imposing Barry civic war memorial hall.

You could say even using an art form that is extremely inaccessible for most young people, modern opera, is in itself counter intuitive, despite the librettist David Pountney’s express desire to create work for students. I suppose he had music students in mind so fair enough.

Back to Barry.

Kommilitonen! is staged in the 1930s Barry Memorial Hall, erected to honour the generation of predominantly young people who en masse fought for God, king and country and gave their lives in the First World War. It is now called Barry Memo Arts Centre, no doubt a marketer’s idea to make the place trendier and appeal to the, cough, young.

Anyway, we passed through the stunning room bearing the names of the war dead and beautiful period carving into the vast main hall with its sweeping Deco balcony and large stage for the promenade performance.

The band was on the stage and the principles and large number of chorus members mainly marches around and clambered up and down the black and white cube structure in the middle of the space. The cubes were cleverly used with video projections not only of pre-recorded imagery to accompany the narrative, the massed young people in a sort of cinema audience environment, surtitles of the Pountney’s libretto (a bit distracting at times when you had to look in one direction for the projections and elsewhere for the action) and some extremely moving pieces of historic text plus surfaces for the young people to daub slogans.

The three stories are of the children of an educated and therefore doomed parents in the Cultural revolution in Mao’s China (Soar to Heaven); James Meredith, the first black student to enrol and graduate from the University of Mississippi in the sixties (The Oxford Revolution) and the Munich White Rose student group who wrote, printed and distributed any Nazi leaflets in Munich in 1942. I would question quite how the three very different situations, sets of characters, motivations and outcomes fit together let alone how effective this work in trying to interweave them despite the excellent production from Polly Graham, designer, Gabriella Slade, smooth and well-paced movement from choreographer Jo Fong and lighting from Katy Morison with the video projections by Will Duke.

The short second half brings the stories to their conclusion but also brings in Christian morality of sacrifice with the Christ trial and betrayal narrative, then the easy morality that people need some form of faith and respect for authority (packaged in whatever way rocks their boat) to survive. Whether we also come away inspired by these tales of young people making a stand (compared with today?) I do not know. It would be a brave librettist indeed to take up the stories of young suicide bombers, geeky anti-Big Business computer hackers and, say, young European Fascists.

Conducted by Alice Farnham the orchestra and singers (the WNO Youth Opera’s own groups, students at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama and the Birmingham Conservatoire and WNO Orchestra) work together splendidly to realise Maxwell Davies’ mish mash of styles and genres from cabaret to jazz, loud brass band marching tunes, gospel and art-song contextual flavours whether the Far East or the Deep South.

It is with the chorus that the writing for voice is most effective and pleasant on the ear and individual songs are not particularly memorable despite the emotion and passion they contain and the impressive professional quality of these young voices, particularly Oscar Castellino, Tara McSwiney, Jack Bowtell, Dragos Ionel and Flora Macdonald. They are given a thought-provoking and challenging libretto to get their lips around and while I doubt it will drive them to become involved in political action it will certainly help their future careers. Up the revolution!