YSFNM 2015: La Pucelle

Earlier this month, York welcomed back the York Spring Festival of New Music.  Many of the concerts in this festival provide a platform for premier performances of works by contemporary composers, giving the audience unique experiences and bringing new works into the public eye. We first bring you the review of “La Pucelle,” a new Chamber Opera about Joan of Arc by Rose Miranda Hall performed as part of the festival.

The history of Joan of Arc is still a mystery; various surviving records describe her quite differently which allowed Hall to take advantage of such ambiguity and represent this mystical and multi-faceted character through three different performers, each embodying a different persona. This made for an interesting visual feature as the audience could follow the variations in Joan’s personality and note moments of unison as a symbol of her true thoughts. Hall’s innovative use of text in this work is also something to be noted, particularly her use of historical trial records which added credibility to the story and an interesting historical aspect to the new work.

There were some beautiful moments in which the singers soared over the instrumental backing but the nature of the staging required more receptive adaptation

The orchestration and musical material in this piece were overall very effective and cleverly structured. However, there were some moments of instability during the performance, such as missed entries and a lack of unison at times. Nevertheless, it must be said that there were some clearly well-rehearsed and confident passages which were highly dramatic and successful, showcasing the quality of the compositional work in this piece.

However, the balance in sound between the singers and instrumentalists in this performance proved to be a tricky issue. Whilst it can be incredibly difficult to work round this problem (I’ve been subject to it many times!),  the static staging singers behind orchestra occasionally distorted the sound, thus increasing the difficulty to follow the story. There were some beautiful moments in which the singers soared over the instrumental backing but the nature of the staging required more receptive adaptation, which the orchestra did not implement. On a similar note, the way that the text was set occasionally meant the meaning of the lyrics was lost to the audience. Operatic passages in scales with long, drawn out words also made it difficult to keep track of the phrase.

Despite some minor performance and balancing issues, La Pucelle’s performance was a success

The performances from the cast were varied; some very engaging and expressive whilst others less dynamic. The three sopranos playing Joan were all engaging and showcased the different personalities well. Emily Hodkinson was particularly captivating in this role and her connection to the piece was evident to the audience throughout. Similarly Angus Bower-Brown gave a confident performance as the Inquisitor, with clear vocals and good stage presence, particularly during his longer solo passage. The conducting of this piece was also notable, achieving a generally strong sense of energy and clear drive throughout the climatic passages.

Despite some minor performance and balancing issues, La Pucelle’s performance was a success, particularly in compositional terms. It showcased some impressive and intricate work from Hall. With further consideration of staging, I am sure they will find a balance capable of carrying out such innovation to its full potential.

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