Whether you take it as a magical story, a modern myth or a parable of the natural world, The Hidden Valley will enchant all ages. Creative, inventive and beautiful, with a skilful cast who act as well as they sing, including the notable Juice Vocal Ensemble in a chorus role written especially for them, this dynamic production at the Tête à Tête festival is an absolute treat.
In The Hidden Valley, we strike a sudden, golden vein of new Welsh myth, so classical that it could have stepped straight from the pages of the Mabinogion (though a hurried scratch through my own copy assures me it hasn’t). It is a fresh, lyrical tale of love, pain and redemption, brought to vivid life by a team of gifted singers who can truly act: in short, it is an absolute treat.
The story is simple. The god of the valley, Modred, married a lovely mortal (Isobel), only to be heartbroken by her death. So, when his daughter Ariene falls in love with the mortal Dewi, he is determined to spare her his own suffering, and forbids the marriage. In the face of their persistent love, he ordains that Dewi can have Ariene only if he can find her, hiding her inside the valley as a different animal each year. So, it is “not until man speaks cricket or badger” that Ariene will be found. Dewi searches the valley for years, but Ariene – and the animal world of the valley – remains hidden from him. We are reminded of the ironic silence between man, the animal who prides himself on his power of thought and speech, and nature, a world in which each animal can communicate with every other, except man. Dewi’s love, after prolonged disappointment including a brief, unfulfilling marriage to another, eventually unites him with Ariene. Seeing their happiness, Modred (prodded by the Crow) realises the only way to protect his daughter is, in fact, to make Dewi immortal, and their love permanent. He hands his crown to him, and fades away. The story is emphatically Welsh, enchantingly natural, and deliciously new.
The music is fascinating: like a series of sound-paintings. The score is full of strangely eloquent dissonance, producing mysterious depths and colours to explore throughout. Richard Barnard has chosen to use just three instrumental elements, piano (Manos Charalabopoulos), harp (Julia Hammersley) and percussion (George Jones), which give his music softness, magic and drama respectively. The sounds are ethereal, almost alien at times, with a well-drawn distinction between the melodic music of mortals and the music of the divine world, full of eerie harmonies which build to unexpectedly natural resolutions, with percussion adding texture and emphasis. The Juice Vocal Ensemble (Anna Snow, Sarah Dacey and Kerry Andrew) sing soprano trios which echo the music, adding an extra layer – and sometimes the music itself echoes their voices back in loops of rhythm, giving a playful, creative feel. This was the first time I had seen Juice perform, and they were spellbinding, whether as a trio or as soloists: they really added an extra dimension to the piece. Owen Webb gave a fabulous performance as Modred, a powerful king powerless in the hands of love. Laura Pooley, as Ariene, not only sang out of her skin, but also mimed six different animals with brilliance; some of her music was technically demanding, yet just poured out of her as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Meilir Jones also gave a compelling performance: his Dewi was tender, bewildered and heartfelt, exactly what was needed, played with well-judged understatement and sung with lyrical beauty even at this early stage in his career.
I loved Alan Harris‘ libretto. It’s simple, elegant, full of natural imagery (“The years tumble like acorns… All the adder’s bite has done is numb my heart”) with even the occasional joke (the Crow, played brilliantly by Tom Lowe, punning “carrion…carry on”). Best of all, the music conveys the words clearly: the phrasing of music and words fits together, rhythmic emphasis from the music falls on the spoken emphasis of the word, and every line is easily and instantly understood, even when more than one person is singing. (Why can’t everyone do this?) James Helps’ set is simple, but effective (including some oddly attractive tombstones!) which picks up on Harris’ imagery, creating a sympathetic atmosphere without overpowering the performance or becoming folksy. Dafydd Hall Williams, director, has created a dynamic production, with particularly strong choreography: I loved the Crow’s flying, Ariene’s incarnations as newt, stag beetle, spider, hedgehog, wren and salmon, and above all, the fabulous fighting stagbeetles (Alexei Winter and Michael Lowe).
On a small stage, with a lean cast and a pared-down musical palette of piano, harp and
percussion, The Hidden Valley was enchanting. All the bones and the colours are absolutely there. I fervently hope they continue to develop it, extend it, and perform it. If it’s not the Royal Opera House children’s show at Christmas by the time I have grown-up children, preferably with an added ballet corps of dragonflies during the river scenes, and a silent Isobel wearing her cloak of butterflies and veil of spider’s silk, I think I will cry. If you create such a brilliant modern myth – it needs to become a modern classic!
Tête à Tête Opera Festival
Riverside Studios, Hammersmith