Triumph in tragedy
INSTEAD of a customary big chorus and orchestra finale to the Three Choirs Festival, in keeping with this year's adventurous programming, this was the first performance of a one-act community opera.
The Bargee's Wife is a commission by the Three Choirs, in collaboration with a local charity.
For the past six years, Mindsong (Music For Dementia) has been visiting people with dementia at care homes, mainly in Gloucestershire.
Karen Hayes used extensive recorded conversations with dementia sufferers as the basis of a series of poems.
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At last Friday's recital, these remarkable verses were set to music by John O'Hara in the world premiere of a song recital for tenor voice.
Over a number of weeks, the composer, with opera librettist and stage director Karen Hayes, worked together exploring the memories of dementia sufferers and also walking part of the Gloucester and Sharpness canal towpath.
In The Bargee's Wife, the recorded memories were interwoven with established songs inspired by the waterway between Birmingham and Sharpness. The opera, conducted by the composer's clear beat, tells of the winter of 1963, when a small girl, playing tag on the canal bank, loses her footing on the ice and drowns in the canal. Bargees are first on the scene. Each stage and changing mood as the story unfolded was lit by a backdrop change in colour.
O'Hara's imaginative score was at first darkly hued and portentous, sometimes spare, and generally imbued with various bell-like textures. It was immaculately performed by a chamber group drawn from string, wind and percussion players of the Philharmonia Orchestra.
The chorus were warm toned, responsive and diligently blended. At times, they served to interject comments on the action.
Barbara Dickson, as the Bargee's wife, narrates the story in folk mode. Operatic voices are left to a soprano who tells of childhood and family life and a baritone who offers some closure and comfort.
The high-flying Claire Groom and powerful Owen Webb were both polished and accurate. Visual aspects of the narrative were portrayed by a well-drilled and disciplined chorus of young children. The Bargee's Wife, affecting and engaging, brought the curtain down on a triumphant, enterprising nine days, a fitting ending to artistic director Adrian Partington's resurgent festival.