Under Milk Wood Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
Words: Dylan Thomas
Music: John Metcalf
Co-production by Taliesin Arts Centre, le Chien qui chante (Quebec) and Companion Star (New York), in association with Welsh National Opera.
Reviewer; Barbara Michaels
Re-imagined and set to music by Wales’ leading opera composer John Metcalf, the words and imagery of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood are given a new slant in this presentation by Taliesin Arts Centre, staged as part of the Dylan Thomas 100 festival. Given Metcalf’s sensitive handling of the poet’s ‘Play for Voices,’ and a talented thirteen-strong company of singers and multi-instrumentalists, it can hardly fail. Together with director and producer Keith Turnbull, Metcalf has succeeded in translating Thomas’s mythical village of Llareggub with its gloriously eccentric residents into the format of opera. Not grand opera, to be sure, but rather the melding together of the different genres of poetry and music, requiring in addition considerable acting skills – quite a tall order.
Not surprisingly, in the centenary year, there are many productions of the famous poem, originally written for radio back in 1954, going the rounds. This one is unique, being the only operatic presentation ever – a world premiere, no less. With visuals used as backdrops and a realistic sound track producing the sound of waves crashing onto the beach, it succeeds to a remarkable degree. For those – and at a guess this applies to many of the audience – familiar with the text, it adds a valuable dimension to the whole.
However, there is a caveat. The overture, in the form of a musical introduction before the performance gets going, is overlong when balanced against the overall length of the piece. Also, the music is at times overloud, drowning out the voices and thus inevitably causing some members of the audience to, as it were, lose the plot – not to mention Thomas’s wonderful language, of which every word is to be treasured.
Fortunately, this rights itself and, as the singers settle into their parts – parts plural, for each one takes on the mantle of different persona – one begins to realise what a treat, and a rare one at that, this is. Centre stage, bass/baritone Michael Douglas Jones gives a sympathetic portrayal of the narrator blind old Captain Cat, ably backed by baritone Richard Morris who shines as Mr Waldo as well as in a number of other roles. Soprano Elizabeth Donovan is a wistful tart-with-a-heart Polly Garter who tugs at our heartstrings, while Helen-Jane Howard shows considerable acting ability along with a melodic soprano voice as Goassamer Beynon and other parts. Nice comedic touch from Gweneth-Ann Jeffers in the role of Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, Mrs Organ-Morgan etc.
Considerable musical ability from harpist Deian Rowlands and some excellent viola playing by Parmela Attariwala.
All in all, a remarkable take on the best known work of the iconic Welsh poet.