The biggest challenge presented by Violet, Tom Coult’s first opera, whose premiere opened this year’s Aldeburgh festival, is getting to grips with the basic premise of its plot. Playwright Alice Birch’s libretto tells the story of a woman who lives in the biggest house in an insular village with Felix, her controlling husband, and Laura, an over-attentive maid, and is compelled to follow a daily routine of strictly domestic duties. “For as long as I have lived,” Violet says at one point, “I have never held anything like hope or aspiration or joy for the potential of what my life could be.”
There’s no hint of where the village is and when the action takes place, and no explanation either of why time there begins to collapse, losing one hour in each day, until eventually at the end of the opera there is nothing left at all. As a clockmaker marks off the steadily shortening days, village society steadily disintegrates – livestock is destroyed, children are sacrificed – but Violet welcomes the freedom the chaos offers; she builds a boat, and takes it to the shore to find out what the rest of the world is like.
It’s certainly a powerful construct, but one that has to be taken on trust for the opera to convey that power. At times such that element of fantasy seems to grate against the realism of Violet’s predicament and the genuine contemporary issues it raises. Though quite simple, the production by Jude Christian with designs by Rosie Elnile, adds another problematic layer by mixing historical eras in its visuals – the opening scene suggests a Victorian household, while, later, the men sit down to a meal wearing Elizabethan ruffs.
What does give the opera credibility, though, is Coult’s score. Soaring soprano lines for Violet, negotiated with fabulous poise by Anna Dennis, often over fragile, melting textures from the 14 players of the London Sinfonietta conducted by Andrew Gourlay, are contrasted with often blunt declamation for her husband, while the bells marking off time and the ticking of clocks are constant features of the wonderfully varied sounds he extracts from the ensemble, reinforced by electronics. There is real assurance about every gesture and texture, it’s tremendously accomplished; Coult at least clearly believes in the authenticity of what his opera is all about.