Riders to the Sea/Cupboard Love

Eden Campus Energy Centre, Guardbridge

Keith Bruce

four stars

THE decade-long musical adventure of St Andrews University’s Byre Opera took another bold step with this off-site double bill of 20th century chamber works staged in the Biomass Energy Plant on the shoreline four miles away, part of the ongoing development of the university that is also seeing an extension to the campus springing up next door.

If the location was partly about raising awareness of the forward momentum of the institution, it also spoke fascinatingly to the first half of the programme, Ralph Vaughan William’s setting of almost the complete text of John Millington Synge’s play, Riders to the Sea. As the storm-door closed noisily behind the audience, following Fanny Empacher’s mournful trad fiddle prelude, the parallel roller-shutter behind the playing area opened to reveal the 21st century technology the building houses as a backdrop to the bleak tale of a mother losing her sons to elements.

With Empacher and opera novice Rachel Munro also impressive as her daughters, mezzo Katherine Gunya was in superb voice as Maurya, the matriarch whose final aria sets one of the most famous expressions of Ireland’s complex pagan/Catholic heritage.

Anna Yates’s clever, adaptable wedge of staging was stripped of its covering of natural brackish shore foliage during the interval for what was the European premiere of Madeleine Dring’s Cupboard Love, a blackly comic modernist three-hander of sex and death from the 1940s. In director PJ Harris inventive staging, vivacious soprano Caroline Taylor and baritone Theodore Day were a besotted couple who recall the pair in Steven Berkoff’s Decadence, and Ross McArthur the camp, lively corpse of her husband, whose convenient demise is the mystery of Dan Aitken’s libretto. Dancers Flora Betts and Hanna Mirgorodschi, who embodied the waves in Liz Ranken’s choreography in the first half, were now eloquent disembodied hands and feet supplying props and stage pictures through trapdoors in the performance plinth.

This piece, perhaps too bold for its own time, is a real find, but, like the Vaughan Williams, a very demanding undertaking for all, not excepting musical director Claire Innes-Hopkins at the piano. With a tour of a new Janice Galloway translation of Pelleas et Melisande planned for 2020, Byre Opera’s adventure is one to watch.