Pincher Martin, Royal College of Music, RCM, July 2014Posted on 25 July 2014
This remarkable one-act opera by Oliver Rudland is based on William Golding’s third novel Pincher Martin. A drowning naval officer whose ship was torpedoed survives on a rocky island in the North Atlantic, with rainwater to drink and shell fish to eat. He intends to survive … or so it seems, and this meditation on death and recollection of the past inspired Rudland’s musical creativity.
He first thought in terms of a symphonic song-cycle, yet was gradually drawn to the idea of an opera, and has produced a one-and-a-quarter hour Gesamtkunstwerk of stunning originality. The scenes alternate between the North Atlantic and Martin’s earlier life in England, with glorious video projections of the sea, the island, and the English countryside, including a fast drive in an open topped car when Martin terrifies Mary, the partner of his friend Nat, because she rejects sleeping with him.
On stage we see the car, a grandfather clock and a desk in Nat’s Oxford university office. They are partly rocks, as if Martin is seeing these things on his tiny island of Rockall, and it is a small miracle of the RCM staging that we also see the Naval Destroyer he served on. The sets are enhanced by video projections of extraordinary quality, which are also used to illustrate Martin’s descent into madness as we see scenes of an English country road overlaid with views of a turbulent sea and gulls.
Ah, yes … the gulls. Rudland has coaxed gull sounds from the strings by having them play glissandos with bowing very close to the bridge. This is all part of a musical fabric that allows us to look inside Martin’s stream of consciousness as he strives for survival with his unconscious being thrown back to past events.
It all starts with a brief prologue where we see the ship being torpedoed, and then to avoid drowning in the first scene Martin pulls his sea boots off, an act he later regrets. At the end we see an old couple on the shore of a Scottish island, and a naval captain who has come to identify the body they found. The final words refer to the sea boots, but I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read the book. Go to see the opera!
The music owes a lot to Britten, and the first drowning scene was reminiscent of Wagner’s descent to Nibelheim, but this is wonderful, original music, and the singing by Miles Horner (Pincher Martin), Philip Shakesby (Christopher Martin, his alter-ego in the scenes of recollection), Bradley Smith (Nat), Colette Boushell (Mary), and Piotr Lempa (the Captain) was excellent. My one quibble is the lack of surtitles, but the division into alternating scenes, well described in the programme, gives great clarity to this operatic interpretation of Golding’s novel.
Music, libretto and direction are all Rudland’s. Fine conducting by Mark Austin, and producer Helen Roche has brought this beautifully together with wonderful lighting by Simon Gethin Thomas and terrific video designs, footage and photography by Ethan Forde, Andrew Geraint Thomas and Edward Quekett.
The Royal Opera House has presented works of far lesser value in the Linbury Studio, and even sometimes on the main stage, so one up to the RCM for putting this on. It is the only opera in the classical sense (orchestra pit, singers, staging) on any of Golding’s novels, and is absolutely not to be missed.
Performances continue on 25th and 26th July — for tickets click here.