"Work-in-progress for a possible opera"
by John Bird for remotegoat on 09/08/10

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Following on from this review is an interview with the director, Sally Burgess, which was originally written as a preview for this production.]

Due to the type of work this is I have decided to review it in two distinct parts beginning with the performance.

Full marks to Sally Burgess who makes this a commanding piece of theatre with a well structured and convincing production despite her limited resources. The piece, possibly act 2 of a full blown opera with act 1 being Yelena's Story, is made up of some of Sonya's key speeches from Uncle Vanya which give a resumee of the play as seen through her eyes, with additional arias for Dr.Astrov and Uncle Vanya and a non-singing role for her step mother Yelena. Sonya's ever present father Professor Serebryakov is depicted in the form of a large double portrait of him and his wife hanging ominously above the action. As he is one of the pivotal characters in the play I did feel that he should be written in to the final piece, although the portrait was an excellent idea. I was pulled in to the action immediately it began and my attention was held right through to the final "we shall rest", always I think an indicator of a good piece of directing. Sally was well supported by the inventive design by architect Charles Phu and some interesting and sometimes evocative lighting.

Caryl Hughes played Sonya with great sympathy, reflecting the simple, unsophisticated girl she is and used her musical talent well to convey the tragic life she lives but buoyed up by her great courage. Her singing was beautifully varied to fit the mood but occasionally too light and her spoken links were not all fully audible. Cozmin Sime had the difficult job of playing both Vanya and Astrov, both of which he did well, but was particularly convincing as Vanya. His interpretation of Vanya's aria " I worshipped the professor…." was very moving indeed. Ilana Gorban I felt had a difficult task portraying Yelena and could so easily have appeared superficial, but she pulled it off magnificently and gave a most convincing portrayal of the beautiful, sophisticated and egocentric young stepmother. The small chamber orchestra was meticulously conducted by Lionel Friend and credit must go to the musicians for their individual contributions to the evening's success.

Now to the music. This is work in progress and I will begin by saying that it shows a great deal of potential. However it is essential I believe that Neal Thornton makes an early decision as to whether this is to be a Grand Opera or a Musical. It has the makings of either. I found myself oscillating between feeling yes, this is operatic and no, it is really musical theatre. I guess if I were Cameron Mackintosh I would be saying to Neal, go ahead and add some more modern rhythms, other than just the waltz time which appears occasionally, and add some memorable tunes and you could have a real hit. Having recently seen Scott Joplin's Treemonisha I could not help but draw some comparisons between the musical approach of the two pieces, ie. putting together a linked sequence of songs. Joplin called his piece an opera I would certainly call it a musical. On the other hand, if this is to become an opera, then it needs to be given more overall shape and musical direction in the journey which the play follows towards its final tragic but hopeful ending. This is no simple task as the story of Yelena is much less clearly defined than is that of Sonya, having said which here is a wonderful opportunity to portray the two totally different characters and their various facets and moods through music. In conclusion Sonya's Story was an enjoyable musical experience, and may have a life of its own, but there shines through it a creative talent which may well be capable of much more.

If it re-appears it is worth seeing.



Sonya's Story, composed by Neal Thornton, will be premiered at the Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, Hammersmith as part of this year's Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival, with performances on Saturday and Sunday 7 and 8 August. I will be reviewing it on Saturday night. It will be directed by Sally Burgess with whom I discussed the piece, its germination and its future.

Some years ago Sally and Neal Thornton went to the theatre to see a friend of theirs playing in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya . They had not seen a lot of Chekhov before and in the final scene Neal remarked to her that he felt some music stirring in his mind, inspired by the character of Sonya, one of the two the young women at the centre of the play. As a result of this, Neal composed a song based upon Sonya's last speech in the play which ends with the words;

'We shall hear the angels sing and see the sky glittering with diamonds
And everything that's wicked,
And our own misery will melt away, into God's love.
And then our new lives will become as gantle and innocent as a carress.
I believe it with such passion, I have such faith
I promise you, be patient, have patience
We shall rest..
…….. we shall rest, we shall rest.'

This song Sally and Neal have performed many times, and the play has always haunted Neal to the point that he re-read it and developed a treatment for it on the concept that it would be the action of the play as seen through the eyes of Sonya rather than just making the play into an opera. Earlier this year, when Sally was approached by Tete a Tete to direct something for the festival, she discussed the possibility with Neal and he has worked furiously this spring to write the music. The piece uses Chekhov's text for the music but Sonya is given additional spoken passages to hold the story together. Although there are several characters in the play Sonya is mainly affected by Dr.Astrov, with whom she is in love, and her short tempered Uncle Vanya as well as her young, glamorous stepmother Yelena. Her powerful father, Professor Serebriakov, will appear in a large double portrait, as well as in the double-bass and cello parts.

Neal has studied the impact on Sonya of the social changes occurring, the relationships among the family members and Sonya's unrequited love to produce a finely drawn character study expressed in music. Sally has pulled together a highly talented trio of performers. Sonya will be played by the young mezzo Caryl Hughes, who has recently been making a name for herself with WNO and Scottish Opera. Alongside her will be Yelena played by Ilana Gorban, the popular Brazilian actress/dancer, and the Romanian opera singer Cozmin Sime has taken the baritone roles of Vanya and Astrov, having come directly from singing Schaunard in La Boheme at the Verbier Festival. Lionel Friend is to conduct the piece with a small orchestra in which the composer will be playing the piano.

Sally has Charles Phu, originally from Taiwan, who has an international reputation as an architect and is also a keen opera fan, designing the production, aided by the Swiss artist Phillipe Devaux. And the choreographer is Simon Rice. An international group which Sally is pleased to say has welded into a strong inter-active team. As she said to me, "I am amazed at how such wonderful people have come in to take part."

Although Neal is best known as a jazz pianist and composer, he showed in the first song for Sonya that he has a real gift for lyrical opera writing, and I am sure that this is going to be a fascinating evening. Sally tells me that he hopes to write a similar companion piece giving Yelena's Story, which will provide Act 1 for a full length opera, with Sonya's Story as Act 2. There is also a possibility that Neal will expand the small music group into a full orchestral score at some stage in the future. I hope that we do not have to wait too long for that to happen as the comparisons between the two women in the play are dramatic and could lead to a very interesting new work.

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