The Soldier’s Return

Opera Sunderland

What was once termed shell-shock and is now identified under the wider term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the subject of a powerful chamber opera that Royal Conservatoire of Scotland-trained composer Marcos Fernandez-Barrero and T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet Jacob Polley have created for community opera company Opera Sunderland.

The current restrictions on musicians and other performers may have changed the shape of their premiere from a staged show to a stagey film, but the inclusive nature of the company’s work has survived. The first faces we see are those of the community chorus, and the music written for them underscores the entire work. The most powerful musical moments come when the choir combines with tenor Austin Gunn and bass-baritone Andri Bjorn Robertsson, the tormenting, ominous Voices in the head of The Man, sung by baritone Ian Priestley.

The professional cast is completed by mezzo Katherine Aitken, as much a victim of the fall-out from warfare as the returned soldier to whom she is married. She and Priestley provide the connective thread that joins the narrative, but the most resonant details of the libretto come from the other community element – the verbatim testimony of veterans, identified in the credits, that Polley uses.

The show sees action in several theatres of war, from the Second World War to Cyprus, Malaya and Northern Ireland. Director Annie Rigby’s setting of this is built around an unadorned studio space, but there are frames within frames at work in a combination of found film footage and video that echoes and mirrors the central protagonist’s state of mind as well as using the limitations of the way it was possible to realise the composition in a multi-layered way.

The cumulative effect of this is signalled in all sorts of ways, from the symbolic deployment of a range of vintage radios to the transition of the space from a simple home to a scrim-net covered battlefield of marital strife. Priestley is a harrowing picture of torment for most of the time, while Aitken conveys the exasperated but caring dilemma of those fighting on the home front.

Fernandez-Barrero’s score borrows fruitfully from a wide range of sources, the small ensemble often recalling the political theatre of Kurt Weill or the American minimalism of Adams and Glass, especially in the winds and percussion. The instrumentalists, conducted by Glasgow-born Marco Romano, combine with the chorus in a rich mix at times, but the piece ends with breath-catching simplicity as The Woman reassures The Man: “Your Home/You’re Home”.

The Soldier’s Return is available to view at until November 30.
Keith Bruce