Community Opera – Gelert, by Composer Paul Mealor and Librettist Grahame Davies. North Wales International Music Festival, St Asaph Cathedral, 24/09/11, 14.30 Welsh performance; 17.30 English performance. David Gray 4****

An evening of two halves. The short first half, a concert giving each of the performers and choirs involved a chance to shine brightly in a series of individual musical numbers. The second half, the premier of Gelert, a community opera telling the tragic story of the titular faithful hound.

This opera is written in both English and Welsh – a feat in its own right – and performed in both versions, Welsh in afternoon, English in the evening. Hats off to all concerned for their linguistic flexibility, not to mention stamina.

The opera opens with a short, spikey, percussive overture commanding attention, in the way that all the best overtures do, and propels the audience into the action. Composer, Paul Mealor, brings this rhythmic, rather minimalist style of writing back throughout the opera as a kind of unifying device, and intersperses it with a more expansive, lyrical approach.

Drawing on Welsh folk influences the melodic writing for the voice is accessible and immediately communicative, reflecting the uncluttered and direct poetry of librettist, Grahame Davies. The freshness of the music is complimented by the beautiful young voices of the three superb soloists Trystan Lewis, Dafydd Jones, Lisa Dafydd and the two delightful children’s choirs, plus the adult choir singers.

Words and music combine to beguile and engage. And this is as it should be in a community opera which seeks to speak to child and adult alike. Indeed, this is very much a community opera, and a wide section of the local community were involved. Inevitably one thinks of similar works like Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. Like the Britten, there is plenty for everyone to do, be they child, man, woman – or beast!

The approach to storytelling is rather more complex and challenging. The narrative is episodic and alternates between remembrance, representation and reflection. The work often eschews the conventional approach of opera and music theatre – which is to give us lyrical, emotional responses to events – in favour of a focus on ideas. The death of Gelert is dealt with in a rather cursory fashion and Llewelyn’s response to his tragic mistake is spoken over an instrumental underlay rather than sung. This feels like a missed opportunity.

The climax of the opera, following a rather beautiful acapella incantation – exquisitely delivered by soprano Lisa Dafydd – is the return of the ghost of Gelert, and that of The Wolf. Here the opera becomes psychodrama. Dog and Wolf are presented as archetypal manifestations of the light and shade of Llewelyn’s psyche. Llewelyn’s encounter with Gelert is a moment of beautifully expressive lyricism.

The encounter with The Wolf is rather more confrontational. Here, The Wolf argues that it is Llewelyn’s suppression and exclusion of his own inner wolf that led him to kill Gelert; the representation of his love and joy. This passage is again spoken rather than sung, which reinforces its cerebral rather than emotional nature. Llewelyn accepts this reality and invites The Wolf to come in from his isolation. This leads to a rousing choral finale, Mealor at his most commanding and ravishing, where man, dog and wolf are all welcome by the fireside. Resolution lies in the reintegration of the fractured self.

It’s heavy stuff, and not always easy to follow. This is partly because of the fragmented nature of the narrative. Also, partly because the alternation of spoken word, which seems to carry more of the intellectual weight of the opera, and sung word, which carries more emotional weight, creates a work where the intellectual and emotional arguments do not always seem to be well-integrated.

There is also an issue with the semi-staged presentation of the work. Semi-staged opera is so hard to pull off and requires, if anything, more dramatic commitment from the performers than fully staged opera. Here, there is a lack of coherent dramatic focus from the performers, so that what happens on the stage often seems rather confused. It might have been better given in a totally un-staged version. Indeed, this work feels more like a secular cantata than an opera. But, this is community opera.

An interesting work, full of arresting ideas, well-wrought words, and engaging music, but where the central idea could be more smoothly articulated and tightly argued. I would welcome the chance to see it again in a fully dramatically realised performance, where some of these issues might be resolved by a skilled director. However, as a community opera, this was a staggering achievement for this North Wales community, and very much in the spirit of the founder of the Festival, William Matthias, and the Festival in its fiftieth year, in the acoustically and aesthetically wonderful, ancient Cathedral of St. Asaph. A joyous and uplifting community experience.

Composer – Paul Mealor

Librettist – Graham Davies

Soloists – Trystan Lewis, Dafydd Jones, Lisa Dafydd

Choirs – NEW Voices, Cor Kana, Cor Cytgan Clwyd, Flintshire Youth Choir

Conductors – Robert Guy, Jenny Pearson, Elen Mair Roberts

NEW Sinfonia musicians

Flute – Robert Looman

Clarinet – Jonathan Guy

Violin Edward Pether

Cello – Simon Denton

Piano – Bethan Griffiths

Percussion – Julian Wolstencroft

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