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Friday, October 7, 2022

Migrations review – ambitious and timely new opera examines freedom | Classical music

In a week when dozens of migrants perished in a truck in Texas, as Rwanda continues to be the UK government’s preferred destination for asylum seekers and the country’s new protest laws came into effect, the premiere of Welsh National Opera’s Migrations was timely. As a massive exercise in collaboration and inclusivity, and for its engagement with the fundamental concept of freedom, Migrations was a significant and brave venture, even if, in the end, it was compromised by its overarching ambition.

Director David Pountney’s epic began as a project for 2020 to mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower and the Pilgrim Fathers’ flight from persecution, but was expanded to become an examination of the age-old necessity of seeking change. With six different narrative threads, five authors from differing backgrounds and the heroic effort of a single composer, Will Todd, the crisscrossing of stories across time avoided becoming confusing thanks to section titles and surtitles. It did, however, become unwieldy.

Migrations at Millennium Centre, Cardiff.
Migrations at Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Photograph: Craig Fuller/WNO

Eric Ngalle Charles’s story, Birds, focused on the phenomenon of migrating birds, taking the symbolism of their power of flying free and the miracle of their basic DNA to make the connection with the human aspiration to liberty. This recurring metaphor was delivered with innocent charm by singing and dancing children. Treaty 6 by Sarah Woods was the contemporary tale of the fight against the installation of an oil pipeline violating the land of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Woods was also the writer of The English Lesson, its individual stories of immigrants heartbreakingly real.

Flight, Death or Fog by Miles Chambers and Edson Burton was based on Bristol’s slave trade, and the endurance of Pero, enslaved to the Pinney family. One of the most potent points of the evening comes when his employers laughingly speculate “Do negroes dream?” followed by a memorable arioso flight of melody as Pero sings: “I dream … that we are free of your kind.” With strong presence, Aubrey Allicock as Pero and Brittany Olivia Logan as his wife, Bridget, emerged as the most striking vocal personalities of the evening.

Following two Indian doctors who arrive in the UK in 1968 and face prejudice, This Is the Life! was the least well-judged of the sequences, though sitar virtuoso Jasdeep Singh Degun’s contribution gave it authenticity. And the finale, featuring astronauts ostensibly migrating into the fathomless stars was, well, a step too far.

Given that the fine first half had so much going for it, it was a shame that the second sustained the momentum less convincingly. But conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren marshalled all the WNO forces, plus the Renewal Choir community chorus, with great flair throughout; the participants’ joy was palpable.

At the WMC on 1 and 2 July, then touring in autumn until 26 November.

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