If the magic works

Two new operas from two Welsh companies: do they both do the trick? By Stephen Walsh
A Celtic legend translated into a parable of the despiritualising and decivilising effects of modern political structures: this is very much home territory for Peter Maxwell Davies in his new opera for Welsh National Opera, The Doctor of Myddfai, which has its official premiere in Llandudno tomorrow (its press preview was in Cardiff's New Theatre on Friday).

It might seem that, in starting with a lady-of-the-lake tale from the far Brecons, then twisting it into a rich, complex, at times mildly obscure allegory about the corruption of regional life and values by remote bureaucracies, David Pountney was consciously synthesising a catch-all Max libretto: a Welsh Black Pentecost for the stage. But if so, the end emphatically justifies the means, since the composer resists any temptation to repeat himself, and instead draws the obvious threads left dangling by the subject into a quite new synthesis that neither the librettist nor anyone else could possibly have foreseen.

In Pountney's scenario the symbolically disruptive is much in evidence. The mysterious Doctor tells his child the old story of the water-sprite who marries a mortal on condition that he never strikes her, while voices off interject graphic descriptions of a plague of bruising in the village of today; later the child's own retelling of the tale is intercut with the Ruler soliloquising about the expendability of small nations; later still a manic council of ministers is interrupted by Welsh hymn-singing.

The composer picks up these multi-level ideas with predictable relish. But on the whole it's a much smoother, more integrated and subtle piece than such confrontations might imply. For instance, the hymn-singing has none of the batty obsessiveness it had in The Lighthouse and elsewhere, but is simply the natural crystallisation of musical ideas that underpin the whole work. The Child's pennillion song with harp - one of the most exquisite things Davies has written - is like a distillation of one whole aspect of the drama: the welling-up of the natural springs, the force of innocence - call it what you like.

But there is no shirking of complexity either. The composer pursues his transformations into rougher byways. And he is equal to the dramatic tensions: the crucial confrontation between the Doctor and the Ruler is brilliantly, energetically composed, and in a way that fleshes out characters that might easily have lapsed into stereotype. Only the ensemble scenes in Pountney's equivalent of the Palais des Nations are unsuccessful, because wordy, overcrowded and obscure. And the ending, where the Doctor is dragged into the lake and the Child enigmatically assumes his guru mantle, never quite comes into focus, though it has a certain misty mythic force of its own.

For me, The Doctor of Myddfai ranks with Davies's best theatre pieces, and it's certainly one of his most intriguing recent scores. It benefits here from a sharp, well-organised production by Pountney himself, and witty, eloquent designs by Huntley / Muir - stronger on urban than rural locale, perhaps, but always workable and effective. The opera needs, and gets, a quality cast. Lisa Tyrrell is unforgettable as the Child - pure and sinister, like the lady of the lake herself; Gwynne Howell gives a rounded, moving portrait of the Ruler; Paul Whelan supplies necessary backbone as the Doctor, a complicated role as much Dionysus as Finlay. A whole gallery of minor parts is crisply done, and the all-important chorus part is handled with fervour and confidence. Richard Armstrong conducts, lucidly but with warmth, and the orchestral work belies the fact that WNO have done little modern opera of late. The playing has real affection and commitment.

Meanwhile at the Cheltenham Festival, Music Theatre Wales have launched a first opera by John Woolrich, a sprightly chamber piece called In the House of Crossed Desires, with libretto by Marina Warner. A kind of updated commedia dell'arte, based on Apuleius and played entirely by women, about a magician who keeps a young girl locked up in his house and whose spells turn her lover into a donkey, it promises well, with some excellent, needlepoint musical ideas and fine instrumental marking of the transvestite shenanigans on stage. But there is little growth or characterisation, and the idea wears thin before halfway: a pity, because Woolrich is a talented composer, with far more range than these pasteboard antics allow.

Michael McCarthy stages the piece tidily (designer Richard Aylwin), Michael Rafferty likewise conducts efficiently, and there is some nice singing, particularly from Debra Stuart and Buddug Verona James. But the mind wanders.

'The Doctor of Myddfai' is at the North Wales Theatre, Llandudno, 7.15pm, tomorrow and Sat, and Cardiff New Theatre, 7.15pm, on 5 Oct (01222 464666). 'In the House of Crossed Desires' is at Cheltenham Festival 8pm, tomorrow (01242 227979)