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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Dame Ethel Smyth, The Piskies:  (World Premiere) Score reconstructed by Petroc Murrain. Soloists, Kernow Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Richard Armitage (conductor) St. Nectan's Hall, Redruth, Cornwall, 30.03.2007 (BK)


King Arthur (tenor) - Mark Richardson
Merlin (bar) - Bradley Oldacre
Sir Galahad (tenor) - John Cotton
The Ghost of Ygraine (mezzo) - Julia Loveday
Queen Guinevere (sop) - Rowena Pascoe
Joan the Wad, the Piskie Queen (sop) - Annetta Dobbs
Morgan le Fay (mezzo) - Evelyn Price
Hudebras, a Cornish Giant (bass) - Rhys Owen Williams
Ashboleth, a Cornish Knocker (tenor) James Makepeace
Jack O' Lantern, Joan's Consort (bar) George Bowcastle

Chorus of Marazion Villagers, Piskies, Brownies, Spriggans, Maidens  and Knights.


Conductor: Richard Armitage
Director: Shirley Llewellyn
Costumes: Elizabeth Fowey
Sets: Antonio Argenta
Lighting: Malcolm Hartley


Rhys Owen Williams as Hudebras the Giant

Cornish opera has done well by Dame Ethel Smyth this season. Last November, exactly a century after its premiere in Leipzig, Truro's Hall for Cornwall staged the county's first ever production of The Wreckers given jointly by Duchy Opera and Grosvenor Light Opera. Now, Redruth-based composer Petroc Murrain has reconstructed Dame Ethel's incomplete  The Piskies from manuscript sketches recently discovered by the Ethel Smyth Foundation. The result is an absolute triumph,  providing a perfect closure to the composer's  operatic canon and a marvellous centrepiece for The Hall for Cornwall's tenth anniversary when it transfers there in July.

The origins of The Piskies (rather like Cornwall's little people themselves) are more than a touch mysterious. While the histories of Fantasio (1898) The Wreckers (1904-6) The Boatswain's Mate (1916) Der Wald (1920) Fete Galante (1923) or Entente Cordiale (1926) are all fairly well documented, readily accessible facts are harder to find for the last of Dame Ethel's seven operas. According to Petroc Murrain, initial sketches for The Piskies probably began as early as 1910 and may have continued until 1938 by which time the composer's hearing was almost certainly severely impaired.

An extra factor in The Piskies' slow gestation may be  that Dame Ethel's longstanding love of the Duchy was counterbalanced by her undoubted familiarity with the work of Rutland Boughton. His festivals at
Glastonbury and his operas The Queen of Cornwall (1924) - a magical music-drama setting Thomas Hardy's potent language around the Tristan and Isolde legend - and the more familiar Immortal Hour (1914) had received considerable critical acclaim which Dame Ethel would  surely have known about.  It may well have been the case, Murrain argues, that after The Wreckers,   a further Cornish opera mixed with medievalism and folk-spirits simply struck Ethel Smyth as self-indulgent.

Avalon and Tintagel are woven together tightly in this small masterpiece. The cast features King Arthur, Guinevere, Galahad and Merlin as well as the most famous Cornish piskie of them all, Joan the Wad. Add in more characters from Cornish folklore - giants, the evil 'knockers' from the tin mines and malevolent brownies and spriggans for example - and you have a supernatural story of passion and betrayal which in typical Ethel Smyth fashion has a female character saving the day.

The opera begins with a chorus sung by the villagers of  Marazion -

Jack O' Lantern! Joan the Wad,
Who tickled the maid and made her mad;
Light me home, the weather's bad

which reveals their ambivalent respect for the Piskies, best known of the Cornish Pobol Vean (Small People) who help humans with their tasks or play pranks on them by turns. As the villagers leave the stage to go about their business, Joan the Wad, the only female piskie recorded in folk literature and also the Piskie Queen, sings of her people's lifelong burden: they guard a powerful relic of immense antiquity buried deep in 'Mount Marazion' - the St.Michael's Mount of modern times. 'No rest, no rest,' Joan sings plaintively, 'We weary to protect our endless bane.' Here, the  lively villagers' chorus contrasts marvellously with Joan's heart-rending arioso.

As the story unfolds, we find the Piskies  under attack from the more malevolent spirits and the  Giants, all in the thrall of Morgan Le Fay, King Arthur's half-sister by Ygraine. Like the Nibelung's Ring, the Mount Marazion relic confers immense magical power  which Morgan hopes to gain for  her son Mordred. After repeated onslaughts from   Hudebras the Giant and the Cornish Knocker Ashboleth, Joan the Wad and her consort Jack O' Lantern, journey to Tintagel to enlist King Arthur's aid.  They find the King  grieving for Guinevere who has succumbed to Morgan's magic and is plunged into apparently endless slumber. 

Though Arthur is warned by Ygraine's ghost that imminent battles in Marazion will lead to his downfall and death, he and his Knights travel south  accompanied  by Merlin and  the sleeping Guinevere. As dark magic battles with virtue, the king is killed by Ashboleth the Knocker and the only hope of victory lies with  the ancient relic.  By Jack O' Lantern's light, Sir Galahad and Joan the Wad find the relic together  - neither can do so singly since their individual virtue is insufficient to the task - and the powers of darkness are vanquished. Morgan Le Fay vanishes mysteriously and the awakened Guinevere mourns for her husband. King Arthur's body  - together with  the potent but perilous relic - is sent by sea to  Avalon escorted by weeping maidens.  After eons, the Piskies' task  is ended.

Murrain has done for Dame Ethel what Anthony Payne did for Elgar. Like The Wreckers,  the original score for The Piskies was of potentially Wagnerian proportions although very little of it was fully written out.  Murrain's reduction for chamber orchestra is firmly convincing however, especially in the many sea interludes;   and the magnificent and often bucolic chorus work that welds the action together has been realised very deftly.

Anyone familiar with Dame Ethel's song and lieder output will be unsurprised by the wealth of wonderful melody running through this opera; particularly for women's voices but with  two appropriately menacing scenas  for  the villains Hudebras and Ashboleth. Along with Joan the Wad's arioso mentioned already, King Arthur's grief-stricken lament for the enchanted Guinevere (O sleep, thou accursèd blessing) and Morgan le Fay's vengeance aria in Act II (Fly, vile spirits, on thy doom-filled purpose) are both particularly memorable and for once, all of the carefully picked soloists, some of whom are amateurs in this production,  have voices ideally suited to the music.

The confines of Redruth's St. Nectan's Hall aren't exactly wonderful for opera by any stretch of the  imagination and while the reprises in
Truro are altogether welcome, what this remarkable work   needs is a second production in a larger and better equipped venue; perhaps by WNO given its Celtic flavour and spectacle. That way more people could enjoy it and I'd  even go as far as suggesting that regular repertoire performances could be  rewarding in  commercial terms.  Let's have lots:  'Piskies Galore!' is what this  gem deserves. 

Bill Kenny

Immediately following this performance, Kernow Opera  announced  that an anonymous  financial gift had allowed them to commission Petroc Murrain to  oversee their next project, a production of The Tinners of Cornwall by  Inglis Gundry (1905 - 2000) which was  last performed in 1953.  A classical scholar and prolific opera composer - 15 in all - Inglis Gundry was made a bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1952. Though born in London, Inglis Gundry had strong attachments to the Duchy and had learned the Cornish language.  His other Cornish opera The Logan Rock was perfomed at the Minack Theatre in 1956.

More about Kernow Opera is here  >>>>>

Picture © Malcolm Hartley 2007

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