John Metcalf - Under Milk Wood
John Metcalf's 2014 opera based on Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood.
Michael Douglas Jones (bass-baritone) - Captain Cat; Karina Lucas (mezzo) - Rosie Probert, Mrs Cherry Owen, Mrs Willy Nilly, Mrs Utah Watkins; Eamonn Mulhall (tenor) - Reverend Eli Jenkins, Mog Edwards; Richard Morris (baritone) - Mr Waldo, Mr Ogmore, Cherry Owen, Utah Watkins, Tom-Fred, Inspector of Cruelty; Elizabeth Donovan (soprano) - Polly Garter, Myfanwy Price, Mrs Butcher Beynon, Mrs Floyd; Helen-Jane Howells (soprano) - Gossamer Beynon, Lily Smalls, Mrs Pugh; Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano) - Mrs Ogmore Pritchard, Mrs Organ Morgan, Bessie Bighead, Mae Rose-Cottage; Paul Carey Jones (baritone) - Sinbad Sailors, Dancing Williams, Mr Pritchard, Mr Pugh, Mr Floyd, Willy Nilly, Fisherman; Wyn Davies (light tenor) - Organ Morgan, music director
Parmela Attariwala (viola, violin, crwth); Deian Rowlands (harp, Lever harp); Jose Zalba Smith (flutes); Paul Stoneman (percussion)
rec. St German’s Church, Cardiff, 9-10 April 2014
TOTAL DURATION: 109.43 [60.13 + 48.58]
John Metcalf’s new operatic version of Under Milk Wood is a testimony for Dylan Thomas, says John Allison (Daily Telegraph, April 2014)
Few descriptions of Dylan Thomas’s radio play Under Milk Wood get far before musical comparisons are invoked, and such tags as “a fugue for voices” and “an uproarious and singing lament” reflect well the workings of this poetic masterpiece.Though these are words in no need of further musicking, the orchestration of voices and sounds through which Thomas evokes the dreams and waking hours of a Welsh seaside village simultaneously call out for a setting in music, so it is surprising that John Metcalf’s new operatic version is breaking ground; only a 2006 adaptation by the Austrian composer Akos Banlaky, Unter dem Milchwald, seems to have preceded it.
Commissioned by the Taliesin Arts Centre in Swansea, leading a Welsh-North American consortium, the new opera forms a major part of the centenary celebrations for the city’s most famous poetic son. The Swansea-born Metcalf, with six previous operas to his credit, has composed music that captures the ripeness of Thomas’s vision and never works against the poetry, but if his 110-minute score has a fault, it is that is all a little too, indeed, dreamy. Though rigorously structured over the 12 chromatic steps to mirror the passing of 24 hours, and rooted on C at its opening and close, the 29 short scenes flow without much contrast.
Heavily pruned out of operatic necessity, the text does “begin at the beginning” and this version turns Captain Cat (sung by Michael Douglas Jones in an aptly unvarnished bass-baritone) into the sole narrator. Keith Turnbull’s wonderfully fluid production fixes him in a centre-stage rocking chair, but everyone else moves around, the small ensemble of musicians promenading at times to mix with the cast. Also manipulating some of the sound effects that Metcalf has integrated into his onomatopoeic score, the singers deliver most of their lines in a tonal parlando, breaking occasionally into fuller aria-like numbers.
A uniquely integrated opera, this uses contemporary clothes to timeless effect and makes atmospheric use of dark and abstract projections – though one scene uses Thomas’s own sketch for his imaginary Llareggub. The five-member band is directed from the piano by Wyn Davies (doubling as the character of Organ Morgan) and employs a flautist, percussionist, violinist and harpist, the last two also playing folk instruments, the Crwth and Lever Harp. In multiple roles as the flawed villagers, the singers Elizabeth Donovan, Helen-Jane Howells, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, Paul Carey Jones, Karina Lucas, Richard Morris and Eamonn Mulhall are all excellent in getting the words across and capture a world of delight and regret, gossip and black humour.
At last, then, an operatic testimony for Thomas, who tantalisingly at the time of his death was planning an opera with Stravinsky (instead, the composer wrote In Memoriam Dylan Thomas, setting “Do not go gentle into that good night” as its central section). Metcalf’s strikingly unusual opera has something in common perhaps with Ned Rorem’s Our Town, a reminder of how that Thornton Wilder play must have influenced Thomas. Both plays – and operas – are local yet universal: those with the deepest knowledge of Thomas’s masterpiece will get the most out of this new work, yet everyone should fall under its strange spell.