Perth Festival / The Seal-Woman
While Granville Bantock’s name may have fallen into relative obscurity today, the English-born Birmingham-based composer of Scots heredity was notable enough in British musical circles during his lifetime (1868-1946) to have found himself the dedicatee of Sibelius’ Third Symphony, such was the great Finnish composer’s gratitude for Bantock’s muscular UK championship.
His own music is interesting, at times inspired, a style emerging out of Wagner but with a curiosity for the modal adventures favoured by Vaughan Williams, Delius, even Debussy. Exotic whole tone harmonies vie with folksy pentatonic melodies, the latter no doubt emanating from his direct Scottish bloodline (his Highlands-born father was an eminent surgeon) and evident in such major works as his Celtic and Hebridean Symphonies.
But what of his 1924 opera The Seal-Woman, written in partnership with the Gaelic singer, collector and song writer Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, and currently enjoying a timely revival by The Scots Opera Project? It received two performances at this year’s Perth Festival, featuring a cast of upcoming professional opera singers, a pop-up community chorus, with musical direction and solo piano accompaniment by Scots pianist Hebba Benyaghla. Stage direction was by Ayrshire tenor David Douglas, who also sang the key male protagonist, The Islesman.
As for plot, think of variations on a theme of Disney’s The Little Mermaid or Darryl Hannah’s film Splash transported to a tiny Hebridean community, where a Seal-Woman and her sister enjoy the option of being human on land or mammal at sea so long as the magical robes they discard on dry land are there to reverse the process. In this case, the Islesman snaffles them, forcing the Seal-Woman to stay. They fall in love, have a child, but the call of the sea is too strong and the mother sacrifices family life to return to the deep.
In a production that played safe and fairly simple, strong performances were required to make up for limited action. The strongest of these came from Sioned Gwen Davies in the title role, a ripe vocal performance, particularly in the second half duet with her sister, sung sweetly if a little less assuredly, by Colleen Nicol. As the island’s matriarchal Cailleach, Ulrike Wutscher cut a suitably morose sage, her biggest challenge being to make something special out of Bantock’s overly monotone writing (Britten does that much better), but that was perhaps asking a lot. Michael Longden, as the Fisherman and Water Kelpie, gave what was necessary in his functional roles.
Hebba Benyaghla’s marathon 2-hour piano performance gave comforting impetus to the production, tastefully-spun in a way that appreciated Bantock’s clustered, often misty-eyed textures and folksy melodic inflexions. Could a single instrument ever replicate the colours envisaged by Bantock, a man noted for his skill as an orchestrator, in his original scoring? Who knows? We’d need to hear a full reconstruction of the opera to give a definitive answer to that pressing question.