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Diva to Director
Neal Thornton: Sonya's Story

Sonya's Story by Neil Thornton, directed by Sally Burgess
Riverside Studios, London
, 7 August 2010         

International opera star Sally Burgess is building on her last year's successful venture into opera direction with Cosi fan Tutte. She was closely involved with the creation of Sonya's Story, work in progress by Sally's pianist/composer husband, Neal Thornton, an Act of an uncompleted version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya told from the point of view of Sonya, the youngest character in that tale of dashed hopes, whose life seems most blighted by events. The concept was born at a West End performance of the play as Sonya was making the play's final speech, that passionate, hopeless promise to Vanya that '...we shall know a life that's bright and beautiful....we shall have rest....'.

With Sonya's Story Sally Burgess has confirmed that even from slender resources, two singers, a dancer and 6-piece instrumental ensemble, she can conjure compelling and moving music drama and show us inner truths of the human condition. Sonya was played by the excellent young mezzo-soprano Caryl Hughes, whose lovely singing, musicianship and acting carried the full momentum of the opera throughout (occasionally perhaps a little too knowing).  Excellent too was the velvet-voiced young Romanian baritone Cozmin Sime, convincing first as the world-weary Dr Astrov, with whom Sonya is secretly in love, and then as her despairing Uncle Vanya, flinging himself to the ground, or wildly firing a gun at Serebriakov, Sonya's father whose arrival with his young wife Yeliena has turned everyone's life upside down.

Yeliena, in this version a silent figure literally hovering in the shadows of Sonya's life, was delightfully realized by the dancer Ilana Gorban, choreographed by Royal Ballet soloist Simon Rice.    The international architect, Charles Phu, currently famous (or infamous) for the Gazprom tower in St Petersburg, has apparently long wanted to design for his other passion: opera.  What he did for his operatic debut here at Riverside was elegant, simple and effective:  the backdrop of pale hangings which lighting transformed into forest, Munch-like torrid sky, or the shifting uncertainties of memory and longing; Vanya's desk collapsing earthwards like Vanya himself; the felled stump of an oak, powerful symbol of the tree-planting Dr Astrov, and of the ruined future of people and planet which is – most presciently – at the heart of the play.            

Dominating the stage, and standing in for the missing patriarch Serebriakov, was a large portrait of him and his young wife. Unlike many such opera accessories, this was a strong, finished painting by the Swiss Artist Philippe Devaud. In addition, there were also lovely costumes made by Kyle Whittington for the two women.           

Within this setting, the very physical nature of Burgess's theatre had free reign, movement around the stage always seeming to spring naturally from the characters' feelings, including the tremendous crises in which Chekhov drops them: the startling opening, Sonya chasing Vanya in the shadows for something he has stolen (prefiguring his later suicidal theft of Dr Astrov's morphine); the doctor's bag used as Astrov's symbol, embraced by Sonya, and the vanished object of her moving final glance at the tree stump  where he used to leave it; her collapse at the climax after Serebriakov has announced plans to sell her lifelong home; the telling stillness and blackout after Vanya says he must get back to work, must 'do something......otherwise.....' and we know he means 'kill myself'.  Just a few examples of a faithfulness to the inner truth of human feeling that was sustained throughout.

Functioning more as muted, well-crafted and melodic accompaniment than emotional instigator of the action, Neal's score became almost a parallel reverie on the story, whimsical even sometimes, as perhaps Chekhov himself felt as he led his characters through their absurd human toils. This gave the singers musical precedence, hence a corresponding power and clarity which was pleasing in the small space of Riverside. Neal also made effective use of silence as dramatic punctuation or reinforcement. And there were some truly dramatic moments, notably at Sonya's outraged cry to her father, 'Be merciful....!' where her pain did evoke a rare dissonance. The band, with Neal at the piano, played well too, under the crisp direction of Lionel Friend.The fact that Neal Thornton's music did not take an operatic approach to his well-paced re-telling of the Chekhov, nor did it try to reflect the dramatic weight of the play did not really diminish the impact of the piece. 

Altogether a successful preview of an opera in the making which also proclaimed the arrival, in Sally Burgess, of a truly gifted director equipped to take on work from the operatic canon in a full-blown opera house.

Alison Truefitt

See also: T&T2010 - - Neal Thornton happily "makes no claims as high art for Sonya's Story" (2nd Act, starring Caryl Hughes) of a projected Uncle Vanya opera; nor should he, and I was surprised that Lionel Friend had been persuaded to conduct this unadventurous score... [Editor]