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Ruth/The Dark Lady of the Sonnets review at St Paul’s Church, London – ‘a gift for melody’

Peter Braithwaite and Oliver Brignall in The Dark Lady of the Sonnets at St Paul's Church, London Peter Brathwaite and Oliver Brignall in The Dark Lady of the Sonnets at St Paul's Church, London

The New York-based composer Philip Hagemann has come to London to conduct this double bill of his own operas, both receiving their UK premieres.

The works contrast nicely with one another: Ruth is a straightforward telling of the Old Testament story, while The Dark Lady of the Sonnets adapts a George Bernard Shaw comedy which imagines a chance night-time encounter between Shakespeare and Elizabeth I.

The musical style of both is essentially approachable and tonal, Ruth offering the singers grateful, flowing arioso, while The Dark Lady tends to angularity – though Shakespeare finds room to indulge in lyrical outbursts that display Hagemann’s gift for melody.

The instrumentation of both is economical, but rich-sounding. An archaising, harpsichord-style keyboard tinkles prominently in Dark Lady.

The Bible’s sober locutions and Shaw’s wordy mock-Tudorisms sometimes make things heavy-going for the singers (and occasionally for the audience too), but there are involving, large-scale performances from Alison Buchanan as Ruth and Byron Jackson as Boaz, while Kamilla Dunstan makes an eloquent, dignified, if youthful, Naomi and Damien Noyce a dynamic Amnon.

In The Dark Lady, Sarah Champion rules the roost as Elizabeth, though Oliver Brignal makes a glowingly intense case for Shakespeare. Annabelle Williams is a peachy-toned Dark Lady and Peter Brathwaite a resolute, alert Warder.

Director Eduardo Barreto, an opera debutant, rightly maintains stylised, sometimes touching simplicity in Ruth, and he supercharges the final peroration by placing singers around the audience, standing on pews.

Dark Lady, meanwhile, goes more for sly humour than rampant tongue-in-cheek stuff.

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UK premieres of two operas by a contemporary American composer with a gift for graceful vocal lines