Opera The Immortal Hour Glastonbury Arts Festival

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The Independent Culture
If an opera set in pre-Christian, Celtic Britain starring a faerie fool and a princess from the Land of the Ever-Young is to succeed anywhere, then Glastonbury ought to be the place. It was here, at Rutland Boughton's inaugural arts festival in 1914, that his Immortal Hour first enchanted its audience and went on to take 1920s London by storm with 216 consecutive performances - more than any opera before or since. It has long been waiting for its hour to return.

Seventy years on from the last Glastonbury Arts Festival, Celtic art and spirituality are in vogue again and the newly revived festival's production in the neighbouring town of Street might hope to tune in to the spirit of the age. The audience at Thursday's opening night of Chrys Henning's new production did not, however, appear as spellbound as their predecessors.

The visionary and eccentric Boughton's more realistic aims for English opera were to incorporate our national strengths: ballad-like songs and choral singing. These find voice in The Immortal Hour in tuneful numbers like Etain's "Fair Is the Moonlight" and Eochaidh's "Where the Water Whispers". (Holst congratulated Boughton on "not being afraid of writing a tune".) Boughton, like many other English composers of his day, had fallen under the spell of Wagner: The Immortal Hour was intended as the first of an English Ring cycle, and leitmotifs for characters and ideas abound, helping give the work structure. But The Immortal Hour remains incurably static.

Etain, bewitched by Dalua, falls in love with the mortal king Eochaidh; a year later, her rightful suitor, Midir, comes and claims her back for the Ever-Young. Boughton called it a "human emotional experience" rather than a "drama of incident and action"; but good opera needs both.

With performers ranging from an international operatic star to local amateurs and children, this was bound to be an unequal production. Raimund Herincx as Dalua presided over the first scene, giving a sinister edge to his powerful baritone which clarified Dalua's somewhat elusive role. The other principals, drawn from the local area, had not a weak voice among them. Viola Nagel, as a dazed-looking Etain, sang with a mellow, lyrical mezzo; Simon Trist's Eochaidh suffered from a wooden stage presence; and Robert Carter's Midir looked rather old to have wandered out of the Land of the Ever-Young, despite his green velvet leprechaun cap.

Perhaps just at the end, when Midir led the spellbound Etain away to the sound of swooping flutes and harp, some of the opera's magic and mystery did permeate the audience. But, on the whole, a Nineties audience is perhaps too cynical to be able to watch a tale of faerie without the occasional snigger.

JANET BANKS

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