“The windmill goes round and round… It is a simple life”. The Miller‘s Wife opens, and almost closes, with a similar scene: the miller’s wife in the garden of the mill, while the miller inside pores over his books. However, in this opera, there appears to be no such thing as a simple life. Life, in fact, gets very complicated indeed.
The scenario is roughly that of Abraham and Hagar: the miller’s wife is unable to have children, so her pliant, self-sacrificing maid Maude (who is only ever emphatic about her final ‘e’, and is pretty self-effacing the rest of the time) agrees to have a child on her mistress’s behalf with the miller. We don’t get to know or understand much about the wife, the nature of her illness or its effect on her, but she seems to be at best slightly delusional (at worst, faintly insane). The miller, meanwhile, turns out also to have been having an affair with a pretty young girl down the road, whose father, sung brilliantly and all too briefly by Cheyney Kent, now wants to kill him. So, there are three women, two pregnancies, one greedy man, and things don’t go to plan; I don’t want to spoil the plot, so suffice it to say that confusion ensues, which is only resolved 20 years later.
The first thing to say about this production is that everyone has worked incredibly hard on it. The whole orchestration (beyond an occasional sound effect) was produced for us by one miraculous pianist, Susannah Wapshott, whose ability and staying power – the first act is an hour, the second act 45 minutes, and she played continuously – was quite incredible. The singers had also all worked hard, and each had a beautiful moment: Clara Kanter (as the Miller’s Wife) had one aria in which she rose from her wheelchair; Margaret Cooper was lovely as a delicate, frail, despairing Louisa; Susan Jiwey (as Maude) had an absolutely beautiful scrap of lullaby – which was far too short, and should have been repeated – while she kept a smooth and lovely tone to the rest of her part; William Morgan and Eleanor Ross (as the young lovers William and Jessie) shared a well-balanced love scene where melodies soared and chemistry fizzed. We also had the absolute joy of two fabulously mad aunts (played by Tamsin Dalley and Lindsay Bramley, whose comic timing was impeccable). Amongst this very energetic cast, Eleanor Ross was the most magnetic performer of the ensemble; her performance sparkled with real playfulness, her singing was beautiful, and although everyone else tried valiantly, she alone managed to make the music sound natural and logical.
Because, unfortunately, most of the time, this music works against itself. I remember once that Antonio Pappano, in a programme about La bohème, said, “People think Puccini is easy. It is not. If you are conducting it, it is some of the hardest music to get right. Making something sound so simple is very complicated.” And as I watched The Miller‘s Wife, the wisdom of those words was brought forcibly home to me. Mike Christie has put so much into this opera that the final result is, for me, rather over-worked on a first listen. His musical ideas flow too intensely, and too fast, to allow meaning to be conveyed. He changes mood and emphasis too rapidly for character, scene or plot to ever build. Every new idea is beautiful in itself, but displaces what has gone before, instead of developing it, so what should become an edifice remains a building-site. And every now and again, often in the most surprisingly illogical places, we get a Puccini-esque blast: which is pretty, and always well sung, but which does nothing to advance our understanding of the character, the scene, the plot or the piece. There is also a practical problem that much of the “Puccini” music immediately obscures the libretto (though surtitles would have solved that).
Puccini wrote music of emotional compulsion, which engages us easily because he builds our understanding of the character before asking us to feel. That is why his music is so famously “easy” and natural: it is the natural machine of his plot. Hence, we cry before Rodolfo cries, not just because Mimi has died, but because we know he will cry when he turns around to find her. We cry for him – we cry with him. And it’s so very easy. Because Puccini has manipulated us in a thousand subtle ways to get to that point when he has us at his mercy. He hasn’t just sandblasted us with beautiful noises: he has used beauty to help us understand.
There are lovely moments in this opera: they are small, but strong. Hopefully, with editing, they can be allowed the space to breathe, grow and blossom. Vibrant moments from a valiant cast reward the listener, but one can’t help but feel this opera is not yet finished – and still needs editing.