Commissioning a new opera for its 200th anniversary, and then staging and performing it with such excellence, are laudable things for the Royal Academy of Music to have done. If only, alas, the world premiere of WITCH, music by Freya Waley-Cohen and libretto by Ruth Mariner, had shown us a superior work than it did. The problem lay at least as much, probably more, with Mariner’s libretto, weirdly devoid of dramatic intent, let alone achievement, but it would be difficult to make claims for Waley-Cohen as a musical dramatist either.
What is WITCH ‘about’? A bullied teenage girl alone in her bedroom, save for a giant rabbit (I don’t know either), finds solace and ultimately takes action through discovery of a coven of witches on the Internet. Despite attempted disruption by a group of online trolls, they manage to cast a ‘penis hex’ on the world—shouting ‘Hex in the City!—which (here, I quote the programme) ‘aims to cleans the world of toxic masculinity and goes viral’. Meanwhile, another story is sketched—barely sketched, let alone anything more—of a sixteenth-century Scottish witch; it may have been discovered by the teenagers online, or may have been referred to entirely independently. That was not clear (at least to me). As the late Anna Russell might have said, ‘I’m not making this up, you know.’
The problem is not the worthy intent; doubtless these are issues that could, indeed should, be treated dramatically, though whether an opera is the best place to do so may remain an open question. Perhaps a documentary or, indeed, one of the TikTok-style videos screened in Polly Graham’s inventive, often brilliant staging would be a better place to start. (I remain unsure whether casting a ‘penis hex’ is the most obviously efficacious remedy, but what do I know?) There is little or no attempt to create character, still less character development. There is no dramatic grit, let alone ambiguity. It is essentially a school assembly talk writ large, feeling as though it goes on for ever, though it actually extends for ten minutes or so more than an hour. Waley-Cohen’s contribution has some of what one might consider to be the essentials: different sound worlds for the two centuries, which begin to collide (far more so than in the preachy libretto); a keen ear for musical process, albeit one that struggles, perhaps understandably, to align itself dramatically; and a definite move towards culmination as the ‘hex’ is cast. Set against that, there is likewise little in the way of musical characterisation; vocal writing is often ungrateful to no evident end; and the dramatic function of the orchestra, though vividly present, remains uncertain throughout. I suspect something less inert could have been made out of this, but a series of workshops combined with a few periods of reflection and revision would have been necessary.
Ryan Wigglesworth led the excellent Royal Academy Sinfonia in an incisive account, as well paced as the work would permit. Pulsating with colour, it had me wonder whether an orchestral piece, perhaps with film, might have been a better option. The orchestra was certainly put through its paces, having earlier given a bright-eyed account of the Prologue to Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, albeit one in which Wigglesworth sometimes seemed a little too inclined to follow the singers, lessening dramatic tension. Given with a wonderful, preceding performance of Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna, directed from one of three theorbos by Elizabeth Kenny with great understanding and infinite flexibility, it was unclear what either was doing alongside WITCH. Connection in general mistreatment of women seemed implied, but surely the Opera rather than the Prologue would have made that point better. (There were doubtless musical reasons for not attempting that.)
It was also surprising that no real attempt seemed to be made to connect Monteverdi and Strauss. Graham’s direction of each taken in separation had much to commend it, save the strange, distracting cries (‘witch’-like?) emitted at one point by Ariadne’s companions in the Monteverdi. The Lament was otherwise focused and powerful, due in no part to Sophie Sparrow’s stylish and richly expressive performance. Strauss proved full of incident, a cue to plenty of character creation (retrospectively showing up its successor all the more), though there was considerably less in the way of Hofmannsthal. In that connection, some dialogue was delivered so deliberately that translation into English would probably have been the better option. The flashing screens and general stage incident of WITCH went a long way to contribute interest otherwise lacking, signs of what might have been—and, who knows, may still be.
As a showcase for young singing talent, this triple-bill achieved more. Sparrow did much to engage our sympathy not only as Arianna but also as Sarah who became a Sun Witch. Her counterpart Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada (Green Death Witch) presented an unusually sympathetic Zerbinetta, having us engage with her as a human being rather than metadramatic cipher. (This was, after all, only the Prologue.) Bernadette Johns’s Composer, if sometimes lacking in verbal accuracy, likewise engaged us keenly in her character’s emotional trials, the production’s feminist idea here seeming to be that this was actually a woman in trousers, rather than a ‘trouser role’. It was impossible to know how the rest would have turned out, but Will Pate’s Music Master, Liam Bonthrone’s Dance Master, and Ryan Vaughan Davies’s Tenor all suggested great promise for the Opera that never came. Pate and Johns, moreover, suggested greater emotional depth as the sixteenth-century pair of Wandering Minstrel and Jane than otherwise emerged from Witch. In truth, almost every sung performance impressed. If only half the dramatic material had been stronger …
Claudio Monteverdi, Lamento d’Arianna; Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos (Prologue); Freya Waley-Cohen, WITCH (world premiere)
Arianna/Sarah/Sun Witch – Sophie Sparrow/Prima Donna – Josi Ann Ellem, Composer/Jane – Bernadette Johns, Zerbinetta/Green Death Witch – Kathleen Nic Dhiarmda, Dancing Master – Liam Bonthrone, Tenor/Interrogator 2 – Ryan Vaughan Davies, Wigmaker – Jacob Phillips, Music Master/Wandering Minstrel/Executioner – Will Pate, Officer/Troll 2 – Samuel Kibble, Lackey/Interrogator 2 – Wonsick Oh, Major Domo – Michael Ronan, Agnes/Troll 3 – Julia Portela Piñón, Little Miss Manifest/Troll Mum – Nina Korbe, Troll 1 – Marcus Dawson, Ensemble singers and actors; Director – Polly Graham, Conductor – Ryan Wigglesworth, Designs – April Dalton, Lighting – Jake Wiltshire, Video – Hayley Egan. Royal Academy Sinfonia
Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London, Wednesday 23rd March 2022.
ABOVE: WITCH (c) Craig Fuller