Swanhunter, Linbury Theatre, review: Jonathan Dove produces another winning children's opera

This show has a homely charm reinforced by wittily imaginative puppetry

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The Independent Culture

Jonathan Dove is unique among British opera composers in that he’s tirelessly and dependably prolific.

In contrast to the Turnages and Adeses who slowly and painfully produce one ambitious but flawed work per decade, Dove turns his out on an almost annual basis. He may be pigeon-holed as a ‘mere’ writer of community operas and children’s shows, but he’s created several hits and has never had a flop.

His comic opera Flight, set in Heathrow, has been performed all over the world; The Enchanted Pig, his Christmas musical for the Young Vic, ran for eighty-one performances; his site-specific community operas draw on local talent, and have repeatedly shown how opera can mesh with social reality. Swanhunter, co-commissioned by Opera north and the experimental theatre company The Wrong Crowd, and now starting a national tour in a new production, is a typically felicitous creation which has already won its spurs in the North.

Having learned by trial and error that young audiences love action and a bit of gore, Dove and his librettist Alasdair Middleton decided to look for their story in the Finnish Kalevala on which Sibelius drew for inspiration, but it took them a while to find a story which was not based on brother-sister incest (which wouldn’t have gone down well with today’s thought-police).

The story they chose concerns a hero, Lemmingkainen, whose quest for a wife requires that he pass a series of heroic tasks set by a witch, and who is shot while trying to shoot a swan; his resurrection, thanks to his mother’s incantation over his dismembered body, gives the whole thing a final magical lift. As Dove points out, a story celebrating the power of song offers the perfect plot for an opera, and here he deploys his well-honed gift: as sung by Suzanne Shakespeare and Ann Taylor, the high coloratura for the Swan and the keening lament of the Mother have a soaring, melodious grace; Adrian Dwyer, as the hero, gets nimbly round some richly ornamented vocal lines for high tenor.

Directed by Hannah Mulder, with designs by Rachael Canning, this show has a down-home charm reinforced by wittily imaginative puppetry: Bunraku techniques are used to create the illusion of a giant elk, and of a golden horse rearing up and pawing the ground. The set consists of a semi-circle of tents round a lake bounded by rocky crags; the cast of six – ordinary backpackers out on a mountain hike - play a variety of parts, allowing humdrum reality to merge with the numinous as in all the best children’s stories; all that’s lacking, thus far, is clear diction.

As conducted by Justin Doyle, the score is admirably light on its feet, nudging the action along with a sonically transparent combo of horn, harp, accordion, violin, bass, and percussion. Dove apparently reckons this little work could make a fine introduction to Wagner, being just one-sixth the length, and with a hero not singing himself to a Wagnerian death, but being sung back to life. Well, why not?

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