Friday, 22 June 2018

The Path To Heaven - RNCM, Manchester

Written by composer Adam Gorb and librettist Ben Kaye, The Path to Heaven is an opera (written and sung in English) which recounts the experiences of the Holocaust as seen through a survivor, Magda (played by Lucy Vallis), and her cousins Sara (Caroline Taylor) and Hanna (Fiona Finsbury). The performance at the Royal Northern College of Music made use of a minimal set (a table and some chairs) with a Nazi flag hanging in the background as a grim reminder of the horrors committed by that regime which was present throughout the evening’s presentation. While the performance took place stage left, stage right of the performance space was taken up by the relatively small but tight musical orchestra drawn from the students of the RNCM itself and the Psappha ensemble.

The opera began with the figure of Esther (Lorna Day), dressed in white, stood at the back of the performance space singing a Jewish song. This character, symbolising the faith of the Jewish people, remained silently onstage throughout the performance before returning near the end. Day began by singing acapella but the orchestra soon began to play a disconcerting underscore to the lullaby. This contrast of Day’s delicate singing and the more abrasive music, which at times drowned her vocals out, set the scene for the rest of the opera: happiness and life were about to be replaced by misery and death. As Esther repeated her song, Magda began to reminiscence about how her and her cousins “were once a family before they came.” After her introductory performance, which Vallis delivered with sincerity, the scene moved back to when Magda was young as she and Sara, Hanna, their friend Hans, and Dieter, Sara’s boyfriend, return home from a night of dancing and singing. As Hans, David Crane possessed a strong baritone voice and impressed both in this role and in his later role as a Prisoner. Michael Jones offered strong support as Dieter but Taylor and Finsbury truly shone as Sara and Hanna respectively. Taylor was able to give a strong vocal performance against the often overpowering musical accompaniment. Finsbury performed a wonderful lullaby at the end of this opening scene which would have broken even the stoniest of hearts.
From this joyous opening, with light and bouncing music, things soon turned bleaker. The family are instructed to evacuate the city and Dieter believes that his position in the German army can protect Sara, but this turns out to not be the case. A Nazi Officer arrives and forces the family out onto a packed train heading east. As the Officer, Einar Stefansson certainly looked imposing but he did seem to struggle to get his bass baritone voice across against the music which, in places, was similar to Bernard Hermmann’s theme from the film Taxi Driver – jagged blasts of brass and thundering percussion. The two percussionists, Tim Williams and Abigail Flood, were certainly kept busy throughout the performance!

The brief scene which presented the women’s journey to the concentration camp contained what was perhaps the most distressing song of the opera, where Sara recounts how people cramped around her in the train carriage were literally dying on top of her. This sombre scene was then juxtaposed with a couple of moments which skirted close to venturing into the grotesque, given the nature of the piece. A song recounting how the deported Jews were treated well while cameras were there to film was performed while the three male cast members (dressed in their camp clothes for the following scene) wore clown masks and danced. While this may have been because of logistics, the sight of a man in a Nazi guard uniform and one dressed as a Jewish prisoner from a concentration camp wearing clown masks was somewhat incongruous. The following song, when the women have arrived at the camp (denoted by a light projection on the background of barbed wire, simple but effective), performed by the Camp Doctor (Stefansson), was incredibly jaunty but took on a chilling hue as he sang of “Life or death” being all the same in the camp.
The subject matter of the opera meant that the ending was never going to be an entirely happy one and Magda is the only one who survives. But the ending of the opera, where she is reunited with the ghosts of those she loved and knew, comes after a stirring song where she sings her warning of sitting in silence against injustice and division, which was undoubtedly given extra weight by the recent furore over the treatment of families of illegal immigrants in America this very week. This coincidence adds to how important it is that we remember the lessons of the Holocaust and The Path to Heaven does provide some insight into those dark days and carries an emotional weight because of it. It did feel perhaps slightly too long and may have benefitted in places from a tighter focus on the emotional trauma the Holocaust engendered. Nonetheless, it was a quality production, with the orchestra expertly conducted by Mark Heron and exceptional vocal work from Taylor, Finsbury, and Vallis as the leads.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 21/6/18


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