Lynne Plowman's first opera, Gwyneth and the Green Knight - first seen at Brycheiniog Theatre three years ago - was aimed partly at children, and there was a youngish audience for her second, a Music Theatre Wales commission, which premiered there on Friday.
But House of the Gods is not for children. Set in London in 1916, it concerns a young soldier returning from the front, destitute and shell shocked, with a coven of neo-Celtic gods and goddesses (in the guise of an East End publican and his family) keen to refresh their waning powers with some human sacrifice, insemination, bloodlust and alchemy.
In the programme, Plowman and her librettist, Martin Riley, make some pretty tenuous connections with the Iraq war. In reality, House of the Gods is a clever, horrible, sometimes witty, faintly tongue-in-cheek revisiting of First World War issues, including the Celtic twilight and Irish identity, the land fit for heroes, the table-tapping atmosphere, and the trenches.
Michael McCarthy's staging (designers Colin Richmond and John Bishop) brilliantly captures the sense of period. But this is already present in Riley's cunning libretto, and above all it's realised in Plowman's skilful score, full of oblique 1916-ish references, fascinatingly contrived for an 11-piece band, and written with a real flair for the voice.
Though compellingly watchable and listenable as musical narrative, the story is hokum and the psychology flat. Plowman can catch the ear with trivial devices, lightweight but unexpected textures, fragments of melody. Her style, less distinctive, is warmer, longer-limbed, and more inclusive. She writes charming ballads, but she has a tougher side too, and she makes a stylistic whole of some fairly disparate ingredients.
The cast has Fiona Kimm as would-be-ex-goddess Ma, Louise Cannon as her pretty but sinister daughter Lily, Mark Evans as soldier Jack, Andrew Slater as the club-wielding publican Da, and Philip Sheffield as the alchemist-in-chief Uncle Crom. All are excellent. Michael Rafferty conducts with command. Neither a provincial opera nor performance, it will be touring widely, including two nights at the Linbury in October.Reuse content