Thelma is a straightforward story of foul play between love rivals given some bizarre supernatural twists. Perhaps the most bizarre is outside the work altogether: that a young black composer who lived and worked in Victorian Croydon might choose an obscure Norse myth as an operatic subject. But then of course, Coleridge-Taylor, studying at the Royal College, had his music encouraged by Elgar and, naturally, there would be no escape from the influence of Richard Wagner. One could spend a fruitless evening trying to work out whether there's more of the first act of Lohengrin (with knights battling over the girl), Rheingold (with the retrieval of submarine gold as the dramatic motor) or even the clumsy interpolation of Parsifal-Christianity as an extra moral thread perpetrated by the Gudrun/Kundry character.
In fact, though the thematics are familiar the music is very much its own event. Like the whirlpool that claims the love rivals in the second act the music spins on its own axis, occasionally overbalancing into the Wagnerian penumbra - the lonely cor anglais following the pitiful Gudrun around is very much that of the coastal third act of Tristan - but also kicking up eddies of Verdi with the gull-flight acciaccaturas of Simon Boccanegra, as well as the choruses of the likes of Otello, and splashing along the pastoral axis of Elgar and Dvorak. It's music strong on melody, though not always in word-setting (the boxy text is unhelpful).
It's also rather set-piece dependent and it was something of an achievement for director Christopher Cowell that this didn't unduly freeze up the action. Bridget Kimak's eliptical permanent set, a cross between a long-abandoned ship's hull and a groyne, also gave the impression of the fateful whirlpool. A coracle provided almost the only stage furniture. I particularly liked the idea of simply inverting the small palm tree to indicate the underwater scene at the beginning of the third act. Christopher Corner's lighting, including some appropriately fluid projections, was a good complement to this. Cowell uses all this space and its permutations to get characters moving and give the chorus options for blocking.
The chorus itself were a rather impressive ensemble. No woollen effort for this amateur group but a healthy, well-projected and remarkably clean body of sound which actually showed Coleridge-Taylor's large set-pieces to be amongst the highlights of the opera. Neither was there any competition with the substantial orchestra that conductor Jonathan Butcher had assembled. The theatre takes the full dynamic range of the music and the voices on stage projected clearly and intact into the auditorium.
The knock-on effect of a competent chorus and orchestra is not to be taken lightly, providing structure and support for the principal roles. Joanna Weeks is a lovely fit for Thelma, her soprano of sufficient weight to carry easily across the general scale of the work, with an ease and sweetness - combined with her exemplary English text - that cuts through (more zart than blade). The final tableau of act 2 in which she reconciles herself to the scant possibility of hope for Eric's return, accompanied by the women of the chorus, is the loveliest of the work, equivalent to the optimistic ecstasy of the equivalent point in Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel and a highlight of this performance.
The leading men are split, traditionally, with the tenor as hero and baritone as cad. Alberto Sousa's Eric and Håkan Vramsmo's Carl also have no problem reaching out through the texture: true to their characters Vramsmo barges his way through (it occured to me that the thuggish Carl is Hunding before getting married off to Seglinde) where Sousa calls out over the top. It was good to hear Sousa in a large space having heard him last year in the much closer quarters of The Rosemary Branch's Dinner Engagement. Rhonda Browne's luckless Gudrun squares off the lovers singing her plangent duet with cor anglais rather beautifully.
Of course, with early medieval mythology in play there is scope for all sorts of extraordinary goings on, even by operatic standards and it's no surprise to have not only a conch-wieldcing fairy godmother in the first act but also a malevolent genie pop up in the second. Patricia Robertson played the sea sprite (?) Trolla with a game commitment to the aquamarine movement - from which the credibility of the character actually gained, I might add. Causing trouble with a bag of snuff, Oliver Hunt's Djaevelen manages an unanswered Faustian pact with the thuggish Carl. Hunt sang with great clarity and brought some charisma to what is an ill-refined Mephistophelean role in the drama - I particularly liked the Kaiser Souze-nonchalant exit after the spell in act 2. Completing the palindromic characters are King Olaf and the Neck König of Tim Baldwin and Stephen Anthony Brown respectively.
I was not convinced that Thelma has a place in the normal repertory. However, it is a coherent, musically engaging fantasy, no less preposterous than any other 19th century opera and with a concomitantly sincere score. There is certainly a case for a recording, a case well made by the company in this nicely finessed production.