Dahlia; Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra and Aurora Proms – review

Just like the Garsingtons Dahlia sounded its final note, the all-female RAF flight attendant departed Brize Norton to spur on the Lionesses at Wembley (almost sweeping across the opera festival’s Chiltern home on its journey east). By all accounts, the timing for last Sunday’s matinee, the last of three performances, was ideal. With music by Roxanna Panufnik and libretto by Jessica Duchen, this new community opera had a relevance no one could have foreseen when the work was commissioned (following the same team’s success with Silver birch in 2017).

Women playing “men’s sports”, in this case cricket, are part of the double-headed subject. The second is the global refugee crisis. A Syrian girl, Dalia Khaled, her home and family shattered, is being cared for by a family in the UK. Despite their love and support, she faces prejudice, until she discovers a passion for cricket. Her skill at spinning bowling boosts her confidence and brings solace in the face of disaster. With 180 performers – local High Wycombe school children, adult amateurs, opera professionals and the Philharmonia Orchestra – Dahlia has a spacious range. The engagement, via video link, of the Al Farah Choir in Damascus and the Amwaj Choir in Bethlehem and Hebron, whose singing is part of the performance, further expands the work’s ambition. There’s also, for good measure, an oud player (Rachel Beckles Willson) and a dog. Garsington’s artistic director, Douglas Boyd, conducts. The streamlined show is directed by Karen Gillingham and designed by Rhiannon Newman Brown and her team.

Few composers know how to handle community opera, with its connotations of dignified and probably not very good. Benjamin Britten proved us wrong Noye’s Fludde. Jonathan Dove has triumphed, with The palace in the sky (2000), and others since. The Welsh National Opera Migrations, the work of many hands and composer Will Todd, is a current success. Panufnik, with Duchen, also knows how to stir the mixture into something sharp, embracing and affecting. I watched anxiously as the man next to me blew and sniffed his handkerchief, thinking I should help him with an extra mask. He cried. It takes a special ability, and artistic selflessness, to create something for different talents, including very young children who get bored quickly. (In the ladies line a little girl asked how I was. I said I was fine thanks and she sang along Dahlia? Song and acting, came her emphatic and enthusiastic reply.)

Patricia Kopatchinskaja metaphorically risks life and limb in every performance she gives. This was no exception

The action moves quickly. Big, catchy choruses keep the company awake and busy. Professional soloists, each with an aria that fills out the life story, enable Panufnik to write without technical boundaries. Kate Royal (foster mother), Jonathan Lemalu (foster father), Ed Lyon (cricket hero), Andrew Watts (cricketing fogey) gave committed, open-hearted performances. Sixteen-year-old Adrianna Forbes-Dorant, note-perfect, a convincing actress too, starred in the title role (she was Flora in Garsingtons Turn of the screw), starring Joshey Newynskyj and Erin Field as the young brother and sister whose family life is disrupted by Dalia’s arrival. The music ranges from brassy progressions in a minimalist style to an improvised dirge between the oud player and Aisha (Merit Ariane), Dalia’s mother, who is in a detention center in Dover. It’s a clever, teasing variation on “here we go, here we go, here we go”. Only “it comes home” was missing, but this was cricket. Even the MCC was present.

Earlier the same day was Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra made its UK debut at the Proms, conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson (on BBC Two tomorrow night). The Royal Albert Hall was festooned with blue-and-yellow flags, but this event was essentially somber, with music-making at the fore. The players, described as “Ukraine’s leading musicians”, some recent refugees, opened with a work by their compatriot, Valentin Silvestrov (b1937), since February this year moved to Germany. His Symphony No. 7 is a hymn-like single movement, bells, vibraphone, gongs and tuba overlaying and offsetting an evocative wavelength of strings. Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, with Anna Fedorova as soloist, was meager in comparison. Then the soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska raged mightily in the great Abscheulicher from Beethoven’s Fidelio, the horn section excels in the aria’s exuberant obbligato. The horns also stood out (it could have been where I was sitting), soaring and flowing, in Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. After a low-key account of the Ukrainian national anthem, and prolonged applause for these brave musicians, it was all over.

Or was it? Indeed, but not in resonance. At Tuesday’s prom given by Aurora Orchestra, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the Moldavian-Austrian-Swiss violinist, played Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor (1947-8). This agonizing work was not performed until 1955 because the Soviet composer had been condemned. The entire piece, the very essence, is pocketed and tattooed with Shostakovich’s musical signature, the motif DSCH based on his name. The long third movement cadenza, in its combination of technical and emotional challenges, forces the soloist to the brink of danger. Kopatchinskaja metaphorically risks life and limb in every performance she gives. This was no exception.

Artistic danger is in the DNA of her fellow musicians in Aurora, whose talents include committing repertory pieces to memory. Their choice for this prom was the most famous symphony of all, Beethoven’s Fifth. I find the high-wire playing-by-heart process so nerve-wracking that I – completely my fault – can’t concentrate properly on the music. So I listened to this concert on Radio 3. Nicholas Collon, Aurora’s founder, principal conductor and inspiring spirit – in lively dialogue with Radio 3’s Tom Service – gave us a clear explanation of the work’s genesis, and the brilliance of its marquetry. Can hearing a piece played from memory make any difference to the sound? I don’t know, but the players’ excitement and virtuosity burst across the airwaves like a shot of adrenaline.

Star ratings (out of five)
Dalia: A community opera
★★★★
Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra
★★★★
Aurora Orchestra
★★★★

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