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Living Bones! The Juniper Tree

16 April 2017

The Juniper Tree

by Philip Glass and Robert Moran, libretto Arthur Yorinks

UK Premiere

Helen Astrid at The Hammond Theatre 30th and 31st March

Review by Mark Aspen

Can these bones live? Ezekiel asks …  Was there ever a more optimistic question?

It is the question posed and answered in the old German folktale in the Brothers Grimm collection, The Juniper Tree, one of the darkest, but arguably on of the most beautiful of the tales.

The darkness could not be more intense: child cruelty, filicide, cannibalism, but neither could the beauty be more essential: transformation, redemption, reincarnation.  And here is a melting pot seething with symbolism.

Then, to concentrate the potency of this mixture add the music of Philip Glass, with its ostentatious ostinato, tempered by the sublime expressiveness of his collaborator, Robert Moran, and one has all the ingredients of a remarkable opera.

Strange then that since its world premiere in 1985, it has never before been performed in this country.  Enter the enterprising opera expert, Helen Astrid, who secured the rights to the UK premiere.  Her unusual choice of venue was a local one: The Hammond Theatre at Hampton.  And so this story of hellish horrors but lacerating beauty found its way to the operatically unbeaten tracks of the borough.

The story is the biography and supra-biography of The Son (note the significant capitalisation), killed by his Step-Mother, who decapitates him with the sharp edge of a heavy trunk from which she offers him an apple.  She disposes of his body by dismembering it and making it into a pie, which is then eaten by his unsuspecting father.  However, his bones are rescued by his sister, who hides them under a juniper tree where his mother is buried.  From the tree he is reincarnated as a white bird which visits retribution on the Step-Mother, crushing her neck with a millstone.  He is then resurrected as The Son.

In presenting this play in the run-up to Easter, the Christian message of the resurrection of The Son, who is killed for the sins of another, is boldly underlined.  However, there are shadows of many cultural references in the piece, the transformations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Greek mythology (Cronus or Tantalus for instance) and even Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.   Nevertheless, in this cornucopia of symbolism, it is the Biblical references that predominate: the living bones of Ezekiel, the temptation of Eve with the Apple, the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove, and the reference to a millstone round the neck in St Luke.

In Helen Astrid’s production, director Donna Stirrup has conceived remarkable symbolic images, many from the clever use of movement choreography.  At the opera’s opening, a queue of young girls each takes an apple from a basket and passes it to another in a concatenation of corruption affecting innocence.  As a former English National Opera staff director, Stirrup may be drawing inspiration from movement choreographers such as Joyce Henderson.   However the most striking use of this technique was in the re-incarnation of The Son’s bones as a huge bird.    Lifting black-light dance routines, common in pantomime, and elevating them to a fine-art form, lighting designer Daniel Dar-Nell has created an amazingly beautiful picture.  Invisible dancers, each holding a florescent bone, recreated the flowing of the bird’s wings, as it flew to the lyrical sounds of the Glass-Moran score.

“My mother she killed me, my father he ate me, my little sister gathered my bones, what a beautiful bird am I”, sings The Son.  This is true in the imagery, but also in the accurate and silvered tones of the treble, Angus Whitworth, whose acting spoke of the trusting innocence and vulnerability of childhood.

He is the “child as red as blood”, in the words of his mother, The Wife who dies in childbirth.  Played with a defenceless simplicity, soprano Rebecca Moon instilled the part with a sense of poignancy, reinforced in the depiction of death coming as veiled silent figures who bore her away.

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Rebbecca Moon as The Wife   Photograph by Stephanie

James Corrigan, as The Husband, formed a figure of constancy, whose rich baritone voice supported an affecting characterisation of steadfastness.  When he re-marries it is to The Step Mother, an evil archetype.  Mezzo-soprano, Mariya Krywanluk has a remarkably responsive singing voice, but in this role her acting was exceptional.  Each glance was as sharp as her butcher’s knife and each move would make the bravest cringe in fear.

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Mariya Krywanluk as Step-Mother    Photograph by Stephanie

The Step-Mother frets that The Son, “must remind him of her”.  The favouring their daughter and her abuses and cruelty to her step-son eventually lead to his murder.  But, in contrast, her Daughter is sweetly sympathetic.  Lia Tynan’s portrayal of this role put across the uncomfortable dichotomy of the character.  As The Husband unknowingly strips the flesh with lip-smacking relish from his own son’s bones, The Daughter collects them in her apron and respectfully lays them in secret at his mother’s grave under the juniper tree.

Following the miraculous transmutation of his bones into the beautiful bird, its song enthrals three tradesmen, The Goldsmith, sung by the mahogany-voiced bass Andrew Beardsley; The Cobbler, the lively baritone Joshua Baxter; and the animated tenor, Philip Meir, playing The Miller.  These tradesmen are so captivated by its song that they respectively give the bird a gold watch, a pair of kid leather shoes, and a millstone.

Soprano Philippa Murray, as a nicely figured Mama Bird, and an adult and a child chorus beautifully complemented the performers.   The music is a collaboration between Philip Glass and Robert Moran, and they initially composed separately, but by hinting at each other’s themes, their creations blend beautifully into an homogenous whole.  Conductor, Andy Langley skilfully interpreted the juxtaposition of Glass’s relentlessly building and developing counterpoint alongside Moran’s melodic musical matrix.  Although it did occasionally overpower the voices, particularly of the children, the size and acoustic of the Hammond auditorium has proved just right for Langley’s sixteen piece chamber orchestra.

And so the symbolism is complete.  The Goldsmith’s gold watch redeems The Husband, constant as a father.  The Cobbler’s kid leather shoes reconciles The Daughter.  Yet The Miller’s millstone wreaks vengeance on The Step-Mother, breaking her neck and delivering us from evil.

Can these bones live? Ezekiel asks.  The optimistic answer to the optimistic question is yes, they can.  It is through the triumph of good over evil: the resurrection that is the quintessence of Easter.

 Mark Aspen

April 2017

Photography by Stephanie at stephotofocus.com
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From → Literature, Opera, Reviews

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