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Barren Barriers between Cultures: The Life to Come

30 September 2017

The Life to Come

by Louis Mander, libretto Stephen Fry based on a short story by E.M. Forster.

World Premiere at The Harlequin Theatre, Redhill, then on tour until 29th October

Review by Thomas Forsythe

Opera, whilst presenting a heightened exposure of emotions, often has a clear moral message.  In its earliest forms it grew out of the long tradition of scared church music, music that looks towards the lux aeterna.    Louis Mander’s The Life to Come, however, offers neither message nor light, eternal or otherwise.   Quite the opposite, instead it merely comprises a relentless polemic against established religion, and the Church of England in particular, and presents a barren, negative view that is devoid of any light.

The premiere of the opera, which took place this week in the municipal space of The Harlequin Theatre at Redhill, was produced by Surrey Opera, a well-regarded semi-professional company.  Musically the production is admirable, but one wonders why the company has taken such a risk on a piece that is clearly designed to inflame controversy.

The story tells of the attempts of a group of Anglican missionaries to convert an African tribe, where “Catholics and Methodists have failed”.  Along comes a young missionary, Paul Pinmay, confident that God has told him to “take love to the darkest jungle”.  Pinmay goes forth, “strong in the armour of the Lord” to meet the recalcitrant chief Vithobai.  However, Pinmay and Vithobai have crossed interpretations of the message of the scriptures, resulting in Pinmay being sexually compromised.   Although Vithobai is converted, Pinmay is consumed with guilt.

Swedish tenor, Martin Lindau gives a very strong performance as the eager and zealous Paul Pinmay.  Lindau has a powerful and clearly defined voice and contrasts Pinmay’s torment of shame against his fiery-eyed fervour of conviction.  Themba Mvula is convincing as the trusting Vithobai.  Here the contrast is between Vitobai’s kingliness and his naivety, and Mvula’s remarkable vocal range is well demonstrated in making this distinction.  Together they give an effective portrayal of a clash of cultures and personalities.

Life Come principals

Martin Lindau and Themba Mvula

Vitobai takes on the name of Barnabas and it is worth noting that, in the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that St Barnabas and St Paul, erstwhile companions in spreading the Gospel, fall out over their interpretation of the scriptures.  And it is the cultural differences in Pinmay and Vitobai’s interpretation of the scriptures that leads to the story’s fatal conclusion.

Jonathan Forbes Kennedy brings a rich baritone and authoritarian presence to the role of Rev. Tregold, the senior cleric for the region, whereas Hannah Pouslom’s soft mezzo nicely figures the role of the hapless Verily Romily, the missionary nurse whom Pinmay marries.

Lighting designer, Alan Bishop provides interest and atmosphere to the setting of the piece, with a luminesce use of the cyclorama; but the otherwise simple cruciform set is marred by extraneous scenery where a minimalist approach may have worked better.

Mander’s score is expertly handled by conductor-director Jonathan Butcher, Surrey Opera’s artistic director, with a well-paced and expressive approach.  His thirty-piece orchestra includes, unusually, the celeste and the harmonium, providing a sense of contrasting spiritual detachment and of mission-hall reminiscences respectively.  The lyrical overture features clarinet and oboe, and throughout the piece the mood is underlined by cameos from variously flute, harp, piccolo and the exotic end of the percussion section.

However, the musical artistry is blighted by the text.  Librettist, Stephen Fry, has taken a short story by E.M. Forster stripped it of any degree of subtlety and restraint to give a puerile interpretation of Forster’s tale of cultural incompatibilities.  It is left without soul, without wit.  Fry has allowed his militant atheism to get in the way of any literary value in the work.

Moreover, the text is historically and factually warped.  Are we really to believe that Africa before the coming missionaries had no disease, no poverty, no violence, no hunger, no slavery?  The poor old C of E is blamed of everything short of global warming.

The insensitivity towards the scriptures becomes marked in the parodying of the well-known passages in 1 Corinthians 13 (faith, hope and charity).  Notwithstanding that this is pertinent to the plot, Vitobai homing in on “love is kind”, whereas Pinmay is obsessed with “love is never unseemly”, its intemperate use would seem offensive to anyone with a vestige of faith.

If The Life to Come is a story about exploitation, then in truth each protagonist exploits the other.  It is a story that ends without hope, in the tenebris aeterna, the eternal darkness of darkest Africa.  But modern Africa is no longer regarded as darkest Africa.  That is the progression of history, a history that The Life to Come tries to rewrite.

Thomas Forsythe

September 2017

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From → Opera, Reviews

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