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Pay the Piper

by on 26 February 2022

Catch Me If You Can

Pay the Piper

by Anna Appleby, Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade, Cecilia Livingston and Ailie Robertson, libretto by Hazel Gould

Glyndebourne Youth Opera at Glyndebourne Festival Theatre until 27th February

Review by Mark Aspen

“Recollections may vary”.  This one year-old phrase of diplomacy is now well established in our collective memory.  It is a truism that frames the approach to a retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin folk tale, in Glyndebourne’s bold and innovative new opera, Pay the Piper, premiering in an enthralling production with its Youth Opera.    Each of four protagonists, The Piper, The Mayor, A Mother and The Lonely Child Tam, tell us, “I will tell the story … This is what I remember … This is what I know is true…”

Thus we have a multi-faceted view of the narrative that reflects the nature of the musical score, which has four composers working in collaboration.  This is highly unusual in any musical genre, and must be unique to opera.  To this particular first, Pay the Piper adds two other firsts for Glyndebourne, the use of puppetry and the non-use of the theatre’s stage.

The Glyndebourne stage is undergoing a make-over (which includes the technical wizardry of an automated backstage!) ready for the Festival, and is currently mysteriously hidden from the auditorium.   Turning a necessity into a virtue, the stalls area of the auditorium has been replaced by a purpose-built stage, which has a splendid quirkiness.  It is heavily under-lit and has a reverse rake, such that upstage is actually physically lower, that is the audience looks down its slope.  The opportunities for this have been seized on by Designer Natalia Orendain del Castillo, based on the original ideas of international dance and opera designer Joanna Parker, and enhanced by Amy Clarke’s lighting design.   The set itself is a fairly simple affair, a number of plain low walls at the back of the stage, and uses the apron of the proscenium for the Mayor’s office.  However, there is a figurative element, hundreds of translucent balls, like fortune tellers’ crystal balls, symbols of the hopes and aspirations of the children who let them roll down the stage, which is the most salient feature.

Then, the puppets.   Of course, there are rats, lots and lots, from glove puppets to tug string models, to a writhing wriggling mat of massed rats, enough to send even a mild musophobiac into paroxysms of horror.  However, the puppet star is a 25 foot high rod-puppet of Tam, The Lonely Child, manipulated by an eight-strong team, the GYO Puppeteers from Windmill Young Actors.  Puppetry has become a technique within opera for a number of companies, notably English National Opera, which has used puppetry in it Madam Butterfly including a mannequin as Cio-Cio-san’s child, and the giant rod-puppets in its 2007 production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha.  However, here the puppetry in Pay the Piper stands out, by the skill of the puppeteers, in its characterisation of Tam as a real human child, having its own (giant) crystal ball of aspirations to bounce in hope.

Tam is the child who is left behind when The Piper abducts the children at the climax of the tale.  The Brothers Grimm had two remaining children, one lame, one blind.  Grimm’s stories lend themselves to an operatic treatment by virtue of their visceral directness; their, well, grimness.  Folk versions add a third child who is deaf.  Physical constraints seem more compelling a reason for not being able to follow than loneliness, which surely would work as an incentive to join the others.  Putting this minor query aside, it must be said that Librettist Hazel Gould’s device of telling the same story from four different viewpoints is a brilliant solution to the challenge of integrating the parallel scores of four different, albeit collaborating, co-composers.  The conceit of a principal in an opera having a dedicated composer beats a mere Leitmotif!

The central predication of the story is the enigma of the eponymous piper.  The Piper’s story, together with the framing passages, the interludes and the opening and closing music, was composed by Anna Appleby.  Bold yet hintingly plaintive motifs introduce The Piper, whereas the rats have edgy percussive themes, claves-like sounds on the xylophone.  Indian-American soprano, Maya Kherani imbues the music with an ethereal otherworldliness, with an athletic coloratura right to the top of her range.   Dressed pied in a multi-coloured tunic, suede coat and hair feathers, her portrayal is of an inscrutable and phlegmatic character, dangerously pragmatic: taking the children she says, “You have to let them go some day”.  But we know they are not just off to fresher’s week at uni.

Adam Marsden’s The Mayor is a portly politician, who has a different form of pragmatism, that of pleasing everybody all of the time to make sure he is voted in next time.  Decisions are shelved rather than settled.   Marsden’s rich bass-baritone has a satisfying mellow richness that appropriately belies the character’s innate timidity, echoed in the row of medals and mayoral chain of office, for what you see is not what you get.  His council, played and sung by six members of the Youth Opera, are dressed in grey suits and carry white balloons with writing on them, the documents with promises that will fly as soon as they loosen the string.  Ailie Robertson’s compositions for these characters have simple textures and often a folksy frame, but ominous timpani mark his agreement to the deal with The Piper, “My hands are tied”.

A Mother is the voice of rationality, although she is conflicted by the desire to save her own child from harm against the sacrifice that emerges as a way of saving the town.  Co-composer Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade writes for A Mother, providing linking passages between the scenes, and giving mezzo-soprano Rachael Lloyd a warm palette from which she paints a picture of a sympathetic character trying to do all things for the best. Dressed in sensible trouser suits, she is always moving to keep a watchful eye from beneath a furrowed brow   Lloyd makes A Mother’s worries palpable.

The child of particular concern is The Lonely Child, Tam Cecilia Livingston.  Tam has five manifestations, the imposing puppet and four members of the Youth Opera, Maggie Marshall, Fin Metcalfe-Martin, Andrea Palma Lizardo and Minnie Wood, who are excellent as actors and in singing their parts composed by Cecilia Livingston, a British-Canadian who describes her work as “Tin Pan Alley, with a dash of minimalism and a hint of Nino Rota”.  Plenty for the four singers to work with there then; and they do.

Although having mentioned the young singers with named parts, the full Youth Opera of 63 enthusiastic young people aged 9-17 years, are remarkable.  This to a large extent is their show, and there is an electric buzz from them that propels the production.  The composers have given them much innovative and interesting material to work, whispering, finger-clicking and clever vocalisations to give a lively interpretation that also make good use of the changed acoustic from the auditorium-based staging.  There are well-executed but natural spontaneous-looking dances.  No specific credit for choreography is given, but the movement chorography is well done, the whole 63 always seeming to be in the right place.

Psappha is an ensemble that is now well established, in fact for three decades this year, in the performance of new work by living composers, and in supporting developing composers.  These include the four Pay the Piper co-composers, who are the current participants in Balancing the Score, Glyndebourne’s development scheme exclusively for female composers. American-British conductor Johann Stuckenbruck has worked with this production since its inception and has been very much hands-on in its development with the composers and librettist.   He conducts and his half-dozen strong ensemble with great élan and obviously savouring its experimental nature.   

Pay the Piper, both as an opera and as an evolving project, has been long in its gestation, twice having been set back due to the vicissitudes of the past two years, but has the hallmarks of a labour of love.  The concept was initially developed by acclaimed stage director Sinéad O’Neill and designer Joanna Parker, but was eagerly taken up by Glyndebourne’s Artistic Director, Stephen Langridge, who directs this premiere production, running with its innovations and excitingly using the outreach of the Glyndebourne Youth Opera.

Pay the Piper by-passes quite a few operatic conventions, a rat-run one might say, around the well-known murine folk tale, and taking a nuanced multi-perspective look at the familiar.  Catch it if you can.

Mark Aspen, February 2022

Photography © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

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