In Flight, Wendy (Mariet Arnet), Michael (Rebecca Bottone) and John (Nicholas Sharat) on their way to Neverland. Photography credit: Clive Bardat
Music by Richard Ayres
Libretto by Lavinia Greenlaw
Directed by Keith Warner
Conducted by Erik Nielsen
J.M Barrie’s literary classic Peter Pan has been transformed into a whole spectrum of genres. From numerous film and television adaptations, to Broadway, comedy and even video game; now the magical story of a boy who never wanted to grow up has been reworked into a family targeted opera. As part of their ‘A Terrible Innocence’ summer season, directed by Keith Warner, the WNO have had pillow fights, dressed as pirates and Indians and have even worked with a flight choreographer but despite the chorus and orchestra’s best efforts, the material they are working with struggles to take off.
Visually complying with Barrie’s description of Pan as ‘the little white bird’, counter tenor Iestyn Morris all shimmered up is flighty and graceful. His fluent falsetto provides an unsettling juxtaposition with his growly spoken voice and embodies a Peter Pan with a slightly unpleasant edge full of spontaneity and arrogance who is unusually detached from the three children he brings to Neverland. Both Mrs Darling (Hilary Summers) and Wendy’s (Marie Arnet) arias are musical flourishes that break through but neither character is given much room to develop.
If a little crazed, Ayre’s full-bodied score, performed masterfully by the WNO orchestra under Erik Nielson’s hand, is an exploratory idea platform that I could appreciate but one that is hardly accessible to children as the themes just aren’t there. He incorporates essence of Gilbert and Sulivan with the pirates sea shanty and draws strong parallels with the likes of Stravinsky and Janáček but the vibrancy and anarchic intensity does not always fit with Lavinia Greenlaw’s slightly stagnated libretto. The WNO chorus work tirelessly but soloists were on occasion overpowered by the full-bodied nature of the score and I found myself searching for the subtitles to clarify what was actually being sang. My attention was often drawn to the interesting things going on in orchestra pit where the addition of the ticking clock sounds and the inventive concept of sawing on wood during the creation of Wendy’s story house joins sight and sound together, giving it an animated quality.
Creating Neverland from the children’s nursery, the parallel world production is colourful and childlike with its jack in the box James Hook (Ashley Holland) who despite fulfilling the role of dastardly pantomime villain provides snippets of comedic light. The novel and entertaining old grandfather clock that progressively transforms into the hungry crocodile will have appealed to a younger audience but the stage feels too cluttered, obstructed with children’s alphabet blocks that seem to get in the way of the fight scenes. Imagination and potential is there but the child’s vision of the world is lost. Instead, we’re offered an adult’s reconstruction of a child’s world restricted by the nursery set up and shadowed by constant allusions to the darker sub structure of Barrie’s work. The numerous re-imaginings of the train remind us of Peter Llewellyn-Davies’ suicide, one of the boys who inspired the author’s protagonist Peter Pan with the station sign for Sloane Square at the beginning making this an overtly clear reference. However, I did like the contemporary concept of the pirate ship as a London Underground train.
With too little in Act One, there is consequently far too much material in Act Two to develop any characters. It really felt like the ticking croc was chasing the performance the whole way through either to hurry it up or slow it down. Despite my indifference, as an introduction to opera, the WNO have done a fantastic job of encouraging families to experience a musical genre that for too long has been unfairly restricted by elitist clichés. By hosting workshops, introductory talks, doing face painting and creating an affordable family solution, children of all ages flocked in to the Donald Gordon theatre to experience something new but whether it hooked its target audience is something that is yet to be determined by the feedback from the families to come.