100 years ago, 57,000 British soldiers died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, with more than one million losses on both sides by the time this particular confrontation came to an end five months later. Welsh National Opera has marked the appalling carnage by commissioning a new opera from 36-year-old English composer Iain Bell.
He sets a libretto based on the 1937 poem of the same name by the painter and writer David Jones, which was hugely admired by the likes of TS Eliot as one of the major works of art to derive from the First World War, during which its creator served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. In both poem and opera, he’s represented by Private John Ball – a perfect dramatic fit as personified by tenor Andrew Bidlack, though the part taxes him vocally.
The chaos and misery of war register terrifyingly in David Pountney’s production, though a more mystical, folksy side of Jones’ text takes up a good deal of the less convincing second act, where the Queen of the Woods and her attendant dryads initially bring death and destruction to the soldiers but then bestow regeneration on the land and the dead.
Bell’s score is technically exceptional, with fine writing for soloists, chorus and orchestra and both an immediacy and a momentum that are entirely persuasive. Carlo Rizzi conducts an assured account of a piece that demonstrates a complete command of the operatic medium.
There are standout performances from the two narrators – Peter Coleman – Wright’s Bard of Britannia, doubling as HQ Officer, and from Alexandra Deshorties as the Bard of Germania, tripling as Alice the Barmaid and Queen of the Woods. Among many other striking contributions Donald Maxwell’s Dai Greatcoat, Graham Clark’s the Marne Sergeant and Mark Le Brocq’s Sergeant Snell are also memorable.