Kommilitonen! covers the nobility of the American civil rights struggle, the hazardous heroism of anti-Nazi agitprop and the self-parodying hysteria of Mao's cultural revolution. These are ripe subjects for operatic exploitation, full of complicated, compromised moral relationships, iniquity, violence and sorrow. On the face of it Kommilitonen! should be a super vehicle for the sort of ensemble opera that benefits those studying on the opera course.
|The real James Meredith at the University of Mississippi|
If there are comparable principal protagonists in the other plots, one is the soprano Aoife Miskelly (Nazi-resistant Sophie Scholl), who has a similarly confident, lieder-clear style to Farnsworth. Sophie is the prima inter pares of a quintet of students playing a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with a Munich populus sleepwalking into National Socialism. All five act with a convincing, endearing heightened sense of life - the agitation of adrenalin and self-claimed Freiheit.
The Mao portions of the opera are colourfully satirical, not least through some ingenious stage puppeteering. The staging is chorus-heavy, with much choreography, and includes an onstage band. Speaking for this Little Red Book wielding crowd is the zealot-perky Zhou of Ruth Jenkins, projecting voice and character right to the back of the theatre. She finds herself engaged in an exercise of non-communication with the a pair of children, orphaned by the brutalising of their academic parents. Li, the daughter (Belinda Williams) is bitterly compliant but Wu, the son, contests the new social order in the privacy of his heart, waiting for the inevitable decline of the mindlessly parroted social contract. Katie Bray characterises Wu with the quality of her sound, generous, plangent, compassionate. It is, for me, the most gripping account of a maligned individual of the evening.
Binding and offsetting this principal group are a pool of smaller roles, from which Jonathan McGovern's chameleon baritone stood out - or rather he didn't, decorously sublimating himself into his functional roles, including the voice of the Chinese father-puppet. The chorus were well-drilled not only in the score but also in a complicated sequence of ballets and blocking. If there was any heterogeny in this corporate staging it was entirely to do with the prioritising of the music (with a notably ringing tenor line), not to mention the necessary complications of a busy production on a modest stage. In addition to the on-stage band there are a number of other on-stage instrumentalists who are required to play in role, and within the score but from memory, notably the affecting Erhu of Amy Yuan.
There's little of the piece itself to criticise. Maxwell Davies is true to his word, writing stylistically but without pastiche. David Poutney manages the density of running three stories across one another well - despite the congestion of detail and ideas I never found myself losing focus. Under the sure-footed direction of Jane Glover the complexities of the score breeze past with a precision that allows the company to really show itself in its best light. Not only a worthwhile project but, uncommonly for new music, one with a great potential for a future.