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Jonathan Dove On Spital Fields
Christ Church Spitalfields, London 23 June 2005

Mark Wilde tenor Mary Plazas soprano
Choirs and instrumental ensembles/Gerry Cornelius conductor
Clare Whistler director

Hard on the heels of the revival of Jonathan Dove's Little Green Swallow comes an ambitious creation for Spitalfields Festival, which shows this prolific and socially conscious opera composer at the height of his dramatic powers.

More compact and concentrated (75 minutes, no interval) than the memorable Palace in the Sky, it covers a wide range of emotion and reaches white hot intensity. All components of the cast of some 200 were brought together smoothly under skilled direction and after thorough preparation in collaboration with the participating groups, who contributed ideas and even tunes to fit some of the words.

Underpinning this achievement is Alasdair Middleton's brilliant libretto, replete with graphic reminders of the hardships of life and work in the area of London through the centuries. The music grow from the words, which come across with admirable clarity. The hardships of the weaving trade, and a violent riot in 1763, were depicted, with a loom set up in the nave for visitors to try. A lively section on Petticoat Lane depicts mid-19 C marketing there, not so very different now. The Jewish history of the area begins in King John's time with horrifying punishments including removal of eyes and teeth "ev'ry one had one of their eyes at the least plucked out", and there was a graphic aural picture of arson at Christ Church in 1836, culminating with an exhilaratingly accelerating traditional Yiddish children's song This is the kid, culminating prestissimo This is the angel of death who slew the butcher who killed the ox - - the kid my father bought for two farthings.

Reflecting today's local population, there were extracts from The Koran and a Hafiz Ghazal sung by the soloists and community choir, one of the percussionists coming front stage to accompany on the tabla. To lighten the prevailing darkness of Spitalfield's history, the ending contrives to be positive and hopeful, listing the multitude of plants grown in Culpepper's Garden from the 16th century, and a choir of all the Songbirds to be heard in Spitalfields creating an inspiring grand finale of impressive complexity; would they might all still be seen and heard there.....

Mark Wilde is a sort of everyman taking us into the scenes of Spitalfields life through from Roman times and Mary Plazas personalises the experiences, poignant in explaining why she had thanked God for taking her children, to free them from the prospect of the hard life that lay ahead. Both soloists sang their roles magnificently and provide a central focus for the surrounding choirs of schoolchildren and older residents, their movements choreographed effectively and movingly, supported by adult choirs including the quasi-professional (though they're not) The Joyful Company of Singers. Listeners hard of hearing were helped by Donna Ruane's signing, which added to the spectacle for all of us. The action was brought right into the audience, and the newly painted interior of Christ Church made a wonderful setting for this imaginative production.

Jonathan Dove's music is clever but never too clever nor alienating for the involvement of local people as participants and listeners. Few of us could reasonably have regretted that it was not more 'modern'. The orchestration was skilful and telling, Chroma's ensemble of strings with clarinet, accordion, piano and percussion augmented by a formidable group from Royal Academy of Music fielding four piccolos, five brass and two percussionists to powerful effect.

The final performance which we attended was being recorded and filmed. On Spital Fields is published by Peters Edition, and the programme book edited by Nick Kimberley names everyone involved, with extended source texts, map and historic photos; it is a collectors' piece.

On Spital Fields must not be allowed to die a local death; although site-specific in its origins it is as viable, and as good, as Britten's pioneering works which have achieved stable places in the repertoire.

This report should be read in conjunction with my reviews of Jonathan Dove's operas for Hackney, Palace in the Sky and The Hackney Chronicles; do please follow those links! See also Geoffrey Norris in The Telegraph.

And see also Dove/King Hear Our Voice about children from the Holocaust, which has been given internationally in London, Germany and the Czech Republic [Editor, July 2006]

© Peter Grahame Woolf