British Music: The Vanishing Bridegroom makes a mysterious opera

Judith Weir's The Vanishing Bridegroom
British Youth Opera
Peacock Theatre, London

Judith Weir has been one of the major figures of contemporary opera in the UK for 30 years, with notable works, such as Blond Eckbert and A Night at the Chinese Opera.  She was recently appointed Master of the Queens Music, succeeding Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

With The Vanishing Bridegroom, which she wrote in 1990, she draws on tales of the Highlands and other Celtic sources both for their narratives as well as the sung texts.

She combined three stories, all separate in time and place but linked seamlessly into an eerie, enchanted world where objects and peoples disappear. In the first morality tale (The Inheritance) a legacy and a son disappear while in the second  (The Disappearance) the bride and bridegroom of the first tale have a child and the man heads off to find a priest only to disappear on the way but then reappears many years later when his daughter is grown up. In the third tale (The Stranger) the young woman is courted by a strange man but she wisely refuses his advances as he turns out to be the Devil.

This combination of Gaelic Gothic and folk tale is matched by Weir’s sharply contrasting music which provides a surreal landscape flecked with emotionally dramatic moments.

While there is fairly clear narrative line, often the singing concentrates on repetition and the mundane, which adds to a sense of oppression and the mysterious.

British Youth Opera is a company of young aspiring singers, not unlike Auckland’s Opera Factory, and features some remarkably talented singers.

Ian Beadle singing the roles of The Bridegroom, The Husband and The Father managed to invest each of the roles with a distinctive presence while Timothy Edlin (The Doctor, The Policeman and The Stranger) gave his characters suitable levels of gravitas, humour and the sinister. Alexandra Lowe (The Bride, The Wife and The Mother) sang with a voice that effortlessly complemented the music while Ida Ränzlöv gave an electrifying performance as The Daughter.

Director Stuart Barker and his team of set designer Andrew Riley and lighting designer have created a dark half-constructed space where the protagonists move from the earthly to the other side, often through a bank of hanging ropes suggesting physical a symbolic passages and transitions

But it is Weir’s music, played incisively by The Southbank Sinfonia under James Holmes, that conveys the unsettling journeys and transformations so effectively.