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Silver Birch review at Garsington Opera – ‘a remarkable event with vast community cast’

Scene from Silver Birch at Garsington Opera. Photo: Tristram Kenton Scene from Silver Birch at Garsington Opera. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Garsington’s final offering this season is the festival’s second community opera – a work specially written for a combination of professional and amateur forces, and involving some 180 participants.

Among these are groups and individuals from six local primary schools, secondary schools and universities, the armed forces and a women’s refuge. They sing, dance and make music alongside the Garsington Opera Orchestra and a strong team of principals, all conducted by the event’s artistic director, Douglas Boyd.

There is a real sense of vision in this coming together, as clear in the unstoppable energy of the performers as it is in the excellence of the stagecraft displayed in Karen Gillingham’s complex production.

The subject chosen for this new work is war; specifically the impact of war upon an individual soldier and his family. Jessica Duchen’s libretto has been partly inspired by the experiences of former Irish Guard lance corporal Jay Wheeler, who was present at the performance, as were members of the family of First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, whose life and work have also fed into the piece.

The narrative describes how brothers Jack and Davey, from an ordinary working-class family, both join the army and serve in some unspecified modern theatre of war, where Jack saves his younger brother’s life. Yet the soldier’s harrowing experiences eventually impact not only on Jack but also on his entire family.

Duchen has written an eminently singable text that Panufnik sets to music. The company clearly relishes performing it. Boyd energises the whole evening with his committed conducting.

But the lasting impression will be of the vast cast, engaged – almost all of them for the first time – on an opera designed for them and to whose challenges they rise with focused enthusiasm.

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Karen Gillingham’s staging of Roxanna Panufnik’s community opera is a remarkable event