North Wales International Music Festival 2022 Review: Gelert

Mealor Successfully Creates An Opera For The Community

By Alan Neilson

(Photo: Stephen Cain Photography)

This year’s North Wales International Music Festival presented the world premiere of “Gelert,” a work labelled as a “community opera” by its composer, Paul Mealor, and librettist, Grahame Davies.

By deliberately labelling a work in this manner, it is inevitable that the curious among the audience will want to know its significance. What does “community opera” actually mean? What features will it gain or lose by being a community opera? Is the audience expected to relate to a community opera in a different way to that of a more mainstream opera? These were questions which the work’s authors were happy to answer at a pre-performance question and answer session.

It immediately became clear from their passionate responses that the label was not attached as a vacuous piece of virtue signaling, nor as a means used primarily for attracting funding. Rather, “Gelert” is a work rooted in the community in a very practical way, with local people, both professional and amateur, encouraged to participate in performances to be held in local venues such as church halls and community centers.

For this high profile presentation in the cathedral of the small Welsh city of St Asaph, all the performers, consisting of two choirs, three soloists and a small orchestra of six musicians, were sourced locally. The subject of the opera was based on a famous Welsh legend, well-known to even the youngest of schoolchildren and, therefore, one which connects to the community across the generations. As a substantial part of the population is Welsh speaking, it was decided to write two versions of the opera; one in Welsh, performed in the afternoon, and one in English, performed in the evening.

Obviously, a community will only be able to stage such an opera successfully if it possesses the necessary musicians and musical forces. To this end, Mealor orchestrated the score for different combinations of instruments so that it could be performed by whatever resources are available.

In order to accommodate amateurs, it is also inevitable that certain compromises have to be made, including in the writing for the choir, the quality of which will vary widely between communities. He did, however, accept the need for professional singers in the solo parts. Attention also had to be given to the construction of the libretto, so that it was able to appeal across the community, to adults as well as children, and importantly, to people who are unfamiliar with the conventions of opera.

The Libretto

The legend of Gelert is a short, simple tale of trust and loyalty that turns into a tragedy, one guaranteed to tug at the heart strings, if not actually bring tears to the eyes.

King Llewelyn the Great leaves his faithful hound “Gelert” to guard his baby son while he goes out hunting. A wolf, seeing Llewelyn depart, sneaks into his house and espying the baby, leaps upon its cradle, spilling the child onto the floor, whereupon the alert Gelert attacks and kills the wolf. When Llewelyn returns, he sees his son lying on the floor with blood spattered across the room and dripping from Gelert’s mouth. Believing that his dog has killed his son, he draws his sword and, in a fit of rage, slays the faithful Gelert, only to realize that the baby is alive and that the dog had saved the child’s life by killing the wolf.

Davies created a fast-moving, easy-to-follow libretto with a simple rhyming pattern, in which Llewelyn looks back, in old age, on the tragic events of that day. The effect, however, was to shift the focus of the story from Gelert to Llewelyn himself, and although the dog’s presence does hang over the work, it never achieves parity with Llewelyn; it is the King’s love, grief, pain, ambition and thoughts which take centre stage. It is his story.

In the final scene, Davies brings the Wolf in from the cold, which, depending upon how one interprets its presence, acts as a manifestation of an aspect of Llewelyn’s personality, or as a way of presenting the animal behaving in its natural state, shorn of its negative connotations. Either way, Gelert ceases to be the fulcrum around which the drama rotates. None of which, however, weakened the opera; in fact, it introduced interesting perspectives and, in the process, widened its appeal, although Gelert is no longer the tale’s principal character.

The Score

Mealor created a traditional tonal score divided into recognizable numbers, comprising arias, duets and choral pieces, with strong, easily accessible melodies. Instrumental passages were used for the creation of atmospheric effects, which, although more challenging, proved to be effective and texturally and rhythmically very interesting; in the overture, Mealor opted for sharp, angular, short, disjointed phrases in which the voice of the percussion played a significant role in breaking the audience’s sense of calm, alerting it to the tragedy which was about to unfold.

For this performance, the orchestra consisted of a piano and percussion, which, given their prominent roles, are probably essential for any performance of the opera, along with a violin, flute, clarinet and cello, which Mealor used imaginatively to develop a variety of pleasing textures.

That he has orchestrated the opera for other combinations of instruments not only sparks the imagination as to the alternative textures he has in mind, but also turns it into a living, breathing work, one open to adaptation and change, and able to accommodate itself to the local community.

The Performance

The New Sinfonia orchestra was under the direction of Robert Guy, who elicited a dramatically taught reading, in which the textural qualities of the score were sensitively revealed and the melodies clearly presented. He was particularly attentive in managing the dynamics, which were always nicely balanced to support the soloists and choirs, and achieved without ever losing the orchestra’s own voice.

There are four solo roles, which were played by soprano Lisa Dafydd as Llewelyn’s wife Siwan, tenor Dafydd Jones as Llewelyn, and bass Trystan Lewis, who was double-parted as the Narrator and the Wolf. All were comfortable in their roles, unsurprisingly so, given that Mealor wrote the parts specifically for their voices.

It was Dafydd, however, who produced the standout performance with a beautifully sung interpretation, highlighted by her aria “There is a saint, they tell me,” in which she moved slowly from the back of the auditorium towards the performing area, her youthful, fresh voice confidently spinning out an alluring unaccompanied melody, in which she is eventually supported by the chorus.

Jones displayed quality as Llewelyn, capturing his reflective pain in a well-sung performance, in which he convincingly moulded his voice to fit the meaning of the text.

Lewis’ possesses a warm bass with a pleasing timbre and sang both roles convincingly, although, at times, his acting appeared awkward, especially in the role of the Wolf.

With Wales’ tradition for choral singing, it was inevitable that any opera written to be performed by local communities across the country would have to have a large part for the choir, and Mealor did not disappoint, writing parts for a children’s choir, comprising Cor Cytgan Clwyd and the Flintshire Youth Choir, and the New Voices adult choir. Both performed very well indeed. Their singing was energetic and versatile, with their voices combining to create a sound which simultaneously cascaded down from behind the stage into the auditorium, and upwards towards the cathedral’s high ceiling. At all times, their singing was sensitive to the dramatic context.

The biggest disappointment was the staging, which appeared to have been cobbled together at the last minute. The old cathedral walls and wooden beamed ceilings provided a beautiful frame for the performance space, on which the orchestra was placed on the left hand side, with the adult choir situated on a raked platform at its rear.

Unfortunately, the props amounted to little more than a large chair and a cheap-looking crown for Llewelyn, while the costumes, apart from the Wolf’s fleece, were no different from everyday clothing. The singers read from their scores while acting out their parts, with predictable results; only the occasional scene rose to anything close to mediocrity. It was something the organizers were obviously aware of, and they made a few small alterations following the afternoon performance. Unfortunately, however, they backfired, and simply drew attention to the shortcomings of the staging. Assuming that this was the result of time constraints, it would have made more sense to have had the work presented as a concert performance.

Setting aside its poor staging, “Gelert” proved itself to be a very successful community project, for it is in these terms that it has to be judged; it is not a work intended to be performed at a large opera house, such as Covent Garden, with a large symphony orchestra. Rather, it is a work that can be taken into the communities to be performed and enjoyed by local people who are able to relate to its subject. As an affirmation of this fact, after the second performance, the audience was invited to join in with a reprise of the final chorus, which they did most enthusiastically.


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