Opera News Review,
January 2008

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WEDNESBURY, U.K. _ Andrew Downes' Opera, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Millennium Scholars & The Central England Ensemble, 8/29/07

Conversion of a novel into an opera sometimes works (as in Of Mice and Men, or Verdi's success with Dumas and Victor Hugo); sometimes, however, it proves dramatically defeating. Conrad's Under Western Eyes (John Joubert), Bronte's Jane Eyre (set by Joubert and Michael Berkeley) and Hardy's The Trumpet-Major (Myfanwy Piper's libretto for Alun Hoddinott) are all modern British operas on the cusp between triumph and failure.

Far from the Madding Crowd, a new two-hour opera by Andrew Downes, may be one that succeeds. It was staged in a church setting, at Wednesbury, near Birmingham _ highly apt for the funeral scenes, though the action was thus restricted to a slightly limited acting area. One missed any sense of Hardy's rolling Devon countryside: the focus was more on the domestic.

Easily the evening's best features were the caliber of Downes's score and the quality of his youthful performers. A former professor at the Birmingham Conservatoire, Downes has an impressive command of his art _ of sustaining an extended structure by use of linking motifs; of judging what works dramatically; of orchestration (several of Downes's works have been introduced by the Czech Philharmonic); and of deploying his best ideas without overusing them.

The orchestra for this performance, the Central England Ensemble, is a striking young group formed from players fresh out of college. The strings were impressive, as were the sly bassoon for hapless Fanny Robin (Kate Hopkins), the jettisoned lover of caddish Sergeant Troy (Simon Walton), characterized with a single trombone and strings; a piccolo-led repeating phrase like a roll-call from Billy Budd; effective use of a solo horn; and a well-judged piano part (played by Duncan Honeybourne) embedded within the orchestra.

Downes sometimes uses traditional melodies, with a haunting medieval underlay. Vocally, the most rewarding performance came from Manchester-trained baritone Jonathan Pugsley as Gabriel Oak, who managed a bit of folk-like piping on a recorder. A distinct feel of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Mr. Valiant-for-Truth, The Pilgrim's Progress) and Britten in places (The Turn of the Screw, Rejoice in the Lamb) added to the intensity and atmosphere of this opera.

In Ann Nation's beautifully costumed, attractively blocked staging, Paula Downes, the composer's daughter, brought a fine upper register and cold authority to the marriage-resistant Bathsheba Everdene. Alison Hill scored with her lively characterization and appetizing mezzo quality as the far-from-pliable soubrette, Maryann Money. Downes's present five acts might usefully be compressed into three, but this was an impressive undertaking that deserves to be performed elsewhere, and a patent triumph for young Midland talent.



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