Opera Review

Ion - an opera by Param Vir premiered as a staged concert with narration on 9 June 2000 at Snape, Aldeburgh Festival. (JM)


Param Vir is serious man. In his teenage years in Dehli, where he was born in 1952, he read Greek philosophy intensively and was particularly drawn to Plato, whom he studied at Dehli University. At the age of 31 he became a composer and moved to England to study with Oliver Knussen.

Param Vir's 3rd opera Ion, commissioned by the joined Almeida/Aldeburgh Festivals, was premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival. According to Vir he could only finish 75% of his new opera. The gaps were linked by the narrator Janet Suzman. David Lan adapted Euripides story of Apollo's son Ion, who gets nearly poisoned by his mother Creusa, not knowing that Ion is her son. It is a tragedy with a happy ending.

I think the opera is complete as it is. I didn't feel anything was missing during the performance. The narration was an interesting contrast to the dense score. Even though Ion is written for a 17 piece chamber orchestra (masterly performance by the Almeida Ensemble under the confident direction of David Parry), 6 singers and a choir of 5 women, the score often sounds like a big orchestra. Star of the performance was Rita Cullis. Her wonderful voice and emotional interpretation of the mother was moving. The part of Ion, her son, is very difficult to sing. The range of the melodies is enormous and it will not be easy to find suitable singers. The high tenor Alexander Mayr did manage to sing all the notes, but his voice sounds metallic and very different between high range and lower range. He was so absorbed in getting the notes right that he seemed to have forgotten to act as well. Maybe director Steven Pimlott didn't have enough time to shape him properly.

Param Vir thinks in colours. He was drawn to Messiaen and Jonathan Harvey, exploring the qualities of tone colours. And the choir in Ion, apart from being a commentator of the drama, as in a Greek play, is all about sound colour. Sometimes the five mezzo-sopranos created strange interferences, similar to a flute quartet, which were quite unpleasant. There was hardly any stage design, just a few chairs scattered on the stage.     We probably have to wait for the performance in the Almeida Opera. The lighting was equally simplistic. The costumes were right. Technically Param Vir draws from different sources. He doesn't have a strict system of musical rules - who has nowadays? The interval of a fith, sometimes multiply superimposed, plays a central role in Ion. The fith is for Vir a symbol of purity. Param Vir has to experience his music in the process of composition through his body. He is against intellectual 'mind'-music. And Vir's music feels sensuous and creates at moments immense beauty. It is elegant with smooth transitions. The overall impression of Param Vir's music is rather conservative - but these terms don't tell much anymore.

Jean Martin

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