parenthisis head 

In Parenthesis

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


WITH one million men either injured or killed at The Battle of the Somme, the largest battle of World War I, it was also the bloodiest of all human history.

Taking place between July and November 1916, French and British forces opposed the German armies across the divide of the River Somme in France.

Some 18 years after the conflict surviving Welsh soldier, artist -poet David Jones wrote In Parenthesis. The poem was, part recollection, and part factual and now it is the basis for composer Iain Bells opera of the same name.

Commissioned by Welsh National Opera to celebrate their own 70th anniversary and to commemorate the battle 100 years ago, it documents the conflict, the terror of a brutal war and through the life of the men within 38th Welsh Division.  

Jones poem remains very much intact within the libretto by Emma Jenkins and David Antrobus who envelop the chaos of war in an air of symbolic mystery. Seen through the innocent viewpoint of private John Ball, it catalogues the futility of his company’s eventual slaughter and the surreal qualities of the conflict at Mametz Wood.

Carlo Rizzi conducts a score that understandably is tense and multi-lasoldiersyered due to the tragic subject and the setting by Robert Innes Hopkins greatly adds to the mythical atmospheres of Jones' original epic poem, a poem T.S. Eliot described as a "work of genius".

The camaraderie of men at war is reflected in Donald Maxwell’s Dai Greatcoat and both he and Graham Clark’s Marne Sergeant were in excellent voice when they boasted of their past military escapades going back  as far, or so it seems, as when time began.

Joe Roche (Private Watcyn), Donald Maxwell (Dai Great Coat) and the WNO Male Chorus. Pictures: Bill Cooper

While the work is on the whole a choral piece the singing of Andrew Bidlack in the role of Ball is worth mentioning and together with Marcus Farnsworth as Lance Corporal Lewis they share a sweet lyrical moment of peace reflecting on writing and poetry.

Overall though the moments of respite are few and there is little room for any romanticism in Bell’s work. It is not until the final scene when Alexandra Deshorties, Queen of the Woods and her Dryads offer flowers to the fallen soldiers where any change in the dark brooding landscape both visually and musically occurs.  

Deshorties also appears as Bard of Germania, together with Peter Coleman-Wright as Bard of Britannia, steered the narrative of the Division’s fate perfectly.

This is an opera that honours Wales throughout, via the central story and remembrance of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, in Jones’s poetic legacy, and in the inclusion of parts of the medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin.

Directed by WNO artistic director David Pountney, the score has a great sense of pride and respect for the subject but lacks a degree of sentiment for the fallen men. There is very little subtlety throughout and the staging is large scale representing the enormity of the conflict but needed more intimacy for John Ball’s personal visionary moments.

In Parenthesis still remains a great achievement by the WNO and a fitting testament to Wales and the lasting creative legacy of David Jones.

Jeff Grant



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