As regular readers of this column will know, it has been a quiet year or so here at the OperaWatch offices, which are situated deep inside Northern Soul Towers. Most of the staff are either on furlough or have joined the increasing ranks of the working poor in the current ‘levelling up’ campaign. Like some paranoid Miss Havisham, I have been staying away from the maskless madding crowd who think it’s all over.
But it came as a pleasant surprise to be invited to review an Opera on Location production of The Prodigal Son by Claude Debussy at Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield. A prior engagement and a viral fear of trains prevented me from attending in person, but they kindly sent a link so I could watch the production online in the comfort of my front room. I’ve become quite used to viewing and reviewing online during the pandemic but, paranoia aside, I’m looking forward to seeing my first live opera later in the year.
Opera on Location has been going since 2013. Based in Sheffield, its stated aim is to bring “innovatively staged, high quality, affordable opera” to the South Yorkshire region. They gained charitable status in 2020 and are committed to making opera more accessible by commissioning new librettos, sung in English and firmly fixed in the concerns of the modern world.
The Prodigal Son by Debussy is an interesting choice. First performed in 1884, it’s a cantata based on the biblical story in which mother Lia (Andrea Tweedale) laments the long absence of her son, Azael (Gareth Lloyd). Updated from Debussy’s original text, Azael has been banished from the family home for coming out to Lia and his father, Simeon (Thomas D Hopkinson). Nervously, Azael returns to the family home to celebrate Lia’s 50th birthday. Confronted by his unannounced presence, Lia and Simeon accept him back into the family fold and celebrate his return in which they are “joyfully united”.
Debussy never intended it to be performed. But as a short one act operetta, it works remarkably well. The three characters are sketched in with assured speed and the narrative unfolds with logic and depth. Each performer sings beautifully and acts their role with admirable conviction. Tweedale holds the centre of the production with a powerful voice and persuasive emotion as Lia. Hopkinson and Lloyd support her with equal power and persuasion. The chamber orchestra, brightly conducted by Julianne Gallant, played with a lightness of touch and real energy as befitting the romantic hues of Debussy.
The entire production by Opera on Location really touched me in a way I wasn’t expecting. As a long-exiled child with no hope of return, I find tales of family reunion overly emotional. I actually cried at the end of Big for a full half-hour. So, to all of you involved in The Prodigal Son, I say a heartfelt ‘bravo’ and a huge thanks for reminding me just how much I love opera.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent
Images by Gareth Widdowson
The Prodigal Son is available to stream online until September 26, 2021. For more details, visit the Opera on Location website.