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Invictus: a Passion

by on 25 July 2021

Eclectic Magnificence

Invictus: a Passion

by Howard Goodall

West Green House Opera, Theatre on the Lake, Hartley Wintney until 23rd July 

Review by Mark Aspen

What has Mr Bean and Blackadder to do with The King James Bible or Requiem Æternam (the everlasting peace at the end of the world)?  Answer: they are pieces of music by the English composer, Howard Goodall, a prolific and wide-ranging creator of music, who fills a mixed bag of genres, film and TV scores, stage musicals and secular and sacred choral works, picking up EMMY, BRIT and BAFTA awards along the way.

Howard Goodall

Invictus: A Passion is Goodall’s latest work, which premiered in Texas, followed by its European premiere in St John’s Smith Square, London.   Now West Green House Opera has opened its 2021 season with the first major production of Invictus in oratorio form (Goodall calls it a choral-orchestral work), with a chamber orchestra (The Lanyer Ensemble), soloists from The Sixteen and almost forty voices including Aurum Vocale and The Quiristers from the Chapel Choir of Winchester College. 

So far, so good, but one would normally expect a Passion to find its inspiration in the Gospels.  However, Goodall has stated that he wants the piece to “find relevance” and be “approachable” to audiences of the 21st Century.   He has included “a feminist critique of the events” and references to slavery, the holocaust and atheism.  With all these buzz-words would the piece lose the intention and message of a Passion, and be trampled by the zeitgeist, one could be forgiven for wondering?    Nevertheless, Goodall says that although the resurrection of Christ is an event “uniquely adhered to by believing Christians, much of the Passion– persecution of the innocent, malevolent authority exerting itself against ideas that threaten and challenge, the power of a peaceful, loving humility in the face of tyranny, the facing-down of fear – holds profound universal resonance for people of many faiths and those of none.” 

Hence, I set out with an open mind to the serene setting of West Green House Opera’s new location within the gardens of the House, the Theatre on the Lake.  The ten-acres of gardens have a transcendent atmosphere created by a galaxy of delicate lights that feel subtly different from last winter’s illuminations.   The stage seems to float on the island in the middle of the lake, while we are safely ensconced in pavilions on the water’s edge, social distanced at café-théâtre tables.  

The first half of the programme, though, introduces us to the performers and their consummate skills.   The evening marks the end of the intense heatwave, and as we settle into the unwonted coolness, the sheer serenity of the setting soon seduces us, as the soft sound of the wind in the willows by the lake forms a foil to the unfolding music.

A lone treble from The Quiristers opens Vivaldi’s Beatus Vir.  The effect is immediately enchanting as it then releases the vivacity that is Vivaldi, and lightens further the skipping tempo of his setting of Psalm 112, the subject of Beatus Vir : “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord …”  The music lifts the spirits as “his righteousness endures for ever”.

With this reassurance, we are offered an even more appropriate piece for the setting, Handel’s Where’ere You Walk from his opera Semele.  As a distraction for Semele, the Princess of Thebes, Jupiter turns her surroundings into Arcadia, telling her that “Where’ere you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade”.   (They were just breezes at West Green.)   It is a fine introduction to the powerful tenor voice of soloist Mark Dobell, who knows just how to get the most of this piece, its pace and its pauses, to subtle effect.

Mozart then picks up from Vivaldi with his own setting of Psalm 117, Laudate Dominum, “Praise the Lord, all you nations”.  This, the shortest Psalm, ensures us that God’s love lasts forever.  This is perhaps the best known movement of Mozart’s Vesperae solennes, a work that also contains his own Beatus Vir.  This in turn is an introductory piece for our soprano soloist, the wonderful Kirsty Hopkins , who can now be called West Green’s own, since she has been appointed its Artistic Director.  Her vocal runs are lightly touched, giving a purity to the piece, the chorus quietly enters at the conclusion, first the Aurum Vocale and then The Quiristers.  The piece is slow, steady and sure, an impression underlined by a swan who glided silently past on the lake, right on cue.

A solo treble from The Quiristers opens Howard Goodall’s Psalm 23, with the lyrical and legato “The Lord is my Shepherd”.  The chorus joins with the reassuring melody, until for “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”, in a poignantly contrasting minor key.  The pattern returns with melodic chorus and ends piercingly beautifully with another treble soloist, who accurately holds onto “for ever” with a gentle vibrato that rings like a bell.   It is perhaps a pity that this work has become so well-known, as the theme to the TV series The Vicar of Dibley, for which in fairness it was commissioned, as some listeners would find this a distraction from what is a fine example of sacred music in its own right.

And so the first half introduced us to all the players in the main programme, Goodall’s Invictus: A Passion, choirs, soloists and composer, and of course to the Lanyer Ensemble, its twelve member chamber orchestra.  Reference must also be made to the Technical Director at West Green, Neil Daykin, who has overseen the creation of the island stage and the lighting of the gardens as a continuous design with the stage lighting, which form a gentle spectacle that adds mood, but does not distract.   We go into Invictus with a stage lit in purple, an appropriately liturgical colour for the passion. 

So, were my initial concerns about losing the intention and message of the passion borne out?  Resoundingly, no.  The buzz-word concepts often supported and sometimes intensified the profound message, the power of truth, goodness and love over oppression.  Goodall had not wanted to replicate the approach of say, Stainer’s Crucifixion or Bach’s oratorios on the passion of Christ.  Here he succeeds in producing, albeit from eclectic sources, a work of rich magnificence. 

Æmelia Lanyer by Nicolas Hilliard

Running throughout the libretto is the heart-beat of a narrative poem of 1611 of the Passion, Salve Deus Rex Judæorum (Hail God, King of the Jews) by Æmelia Lanyer.  I have not read this poem before, but I certainly am going to now.  Intriguingly, Lanyer is purported to be the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Goodall describes this poem as remarkable as “a feminist critique of the events”.  However, it is simply a telling of these events from the point of view of women, women in Christ’s life, or touching on it, such as Pontius Pilate’s wife, whom Lanyer depicts as begging clemency for Christ.   The various moods of Lanyer’s words lead to varying musical treatments.   In Gethsemane, the first of this nine-movement work, the Aurum Vocale and The Quiristers parenthesise the movement, but the conclusion that “… He that from Eternitie was sent to satisfie for many Worlds of Sinne, whose matchlesse Torments did but then begin” is emphasised by a horn fanfare.  The horns are augmented by a soprano saxophone to punch home the message of Golgotha (mov. 6) “And how by suffering He could conquer more, than all the Kings that ever liv’d before” and in His Paths are Peace (mov. 3) as figuratively the Lamb is lead into the lion’s den.  This latter movement opens with the viola underpinning “Inniquitie in darknesse seekes to dwell”.  Golgotha includes Lady Pilate’s plea and uses treble voices to accentuate the women’s cries.

Musically voices and instruments are used to speak one with another.  For instance, the piano and the sopranos speak to each other Christina Rossetti’s words in The Song of Mary Magdalene, “Our Master lies asleep … His heart has creased to bleed”.    In the interpolation of The Call, from George Herbert’s The Temple, in the last movement I Will Arise (mov. 9), each line represents a full-blown conversation between all the voices and instruments, augmented in a brass crescendo.   Goodall has unusually chosen the soprano saxophone an instrument key to this work, as he believes it accurately represents a keening human voice.  Thus, in Compassion (mov. 4), saxophone and piano open together with treble voices in “My eye hath run down with streams of water”, as then The Quiristers and Kirsty Hopkins’ soprano voice interweave, culminating in a steady beat to “Ubi caritas et amor…” the soprano solo, “Where charity and love are, God is there”.

The interpolated poems include AE Housman’s Easter Hymn, an agnostic contrasting of if Christ were merely human with if Christ is truly arisen and divine, a didacticism with the two choruses, one argument stressed by the horns, the other by the saxophone.  The work of two American women poets, Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Francis Ellen Watkins Harper are also included.  Wilcox’s poem Gethsemane forms part of the first movement, sung by Mark Dobell and chorus, which notes that we too have a Gethsemane, “close to the borderland of woe that waits for you and waits for me”.   Harper’s poem forms the basis of the second movement, Lamentation, conveying the anguish of a mother separated from her child at a slave auction.  Its relevance is in the denial of basic human freedoms under many tyrannies in today’s world.   The movement is beautifully sung by Kirsty Hopkins.  The mothers “stifled sobs of deep despair” are expressed by the cello and the final stanza “ … a dull and heavy weight will press the life-drops form the heart” is echoed in the heartbeat of the bass.  It may at first seem odd to incorporate W.B. Yeats’ well-known The Lake Isle of Innisfree, in the final movement, until you realise that its opening words, “I will arise and go” could refer to resurrection, and indeed the poem could be interpreted as a metaphor for life after death.  Here it is a duet between the two soloists (both from The Sixteen), Kirsty Hopkins and Mark Dobell.

The sublime Easter hymn, Isacc Watts’ When I Survey the Wondrous Cross is embedded in the oratorio.  Its simple structure is lit up by Kirsty Hopkins and, when she sings the final stanza as an a cappella solo, her fluid soprano rings out like a bell in the night air across the lake.

Invictus: a Passion has a chiasmus structure, pivoting around the middle movement, William Ernest Henley’s poem, Invictus (mov. 5) in which the stoical speaker defiantly states “I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul”.  This is the tenor solo set-piece, building out from its piano and cello start, its da capo al fine reprise augmented by the Aurum Vocale.  Mark Dobell does the power of this movement full justice, broadening from the subdued “looms but the horror of the shade” to a full tutti crescendo, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”.  The final stanza is also the finale of the whole work where it returns in glory.

Musically, Goodall’s imaginative score has interesting harmonies, simply and direct.  His attractive melodies make for an interesting work.  Goodhall’s musical style palliates the excesses of contemporary composing to give a truly enjoyable experience.  At West Green the piece is blessed with a consummate conductor-director Howard Ionascu and his gifted Lanyer Ensemble, outstanding soloists in Kirsty Hopkins and Mark Dobell, and well-honed choruses Aurum Vocale and The Quiristers. 

Invictus: a Passion takes a patchwork quilt of source texts for its inspiration, some rock-solid in beautiful expressions of faith, such as the incomparable Christina Rossetti, to the questioning probes of Housman.  However, the work is impressively memorable and, yes “approachable”.  In a mix-and-match way, it hits the target of telling the story of the Passion of Christ, in a way that brings out its transcendent resonance for all.

Mark Aspen, July 2021

Photography by Andrew Armanios and Elizabeth Wait

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