Ghosts in a Garden

Ghosts In A Garden – Review

RBGE Palm House
Sun 23 April 2014
Review by Thom Dibdin

★★★★   Concept comes good

Idiosyncratic and intriguing, the Love In A… series of pop-up operas staged around Edinburgh out of season by the International Festival always seemed like a great idea.

The first year saw a song-cycle based around literary themes, with soprano Emma Morwood and lyric tenor Chris Elliott falling for each other in libraries and book shops.

Last year a second, botanical, theme was added – with Emma and Chris’s love burgeoning among the flower beds of the Botanic’s new John Hope Gateway – among other places.

And this third year, to help mark the commemoration of the First World War which will be a major theme at this August’s EIF, series director Sally Hobson has introduced a new song cycle: Ghosts In A… which reflects on courage, love and loss, around times of war.

The new cycle was premiered at the Edinburgh Botanics on Sunday, in the towering Palm House amidst palms and banana trees, orchids and giant ferns.

And in one fell swoop, the good idea – which could at times feel a shade worthy and a little forced – stepped right up into the realms of perfection.

Everything has come together in this latest incarnation. Choice of music, its presentation, the use of words with that music, the publicity surrounding it – and thus the expectations of the audience – are all just right.

The music choice is exemplary in terms of bringing the echoes of war, through a deep sense of loss. Blow the Wind Southerly, the opening setting of Whittaker’s poem to Shostakovich’s music, encapsulates the longing of a girl waiting in hope but with reconciliation, for her lover to return from the sea.

With Chris Elliott, dressed in a period military uniform already hidden amidst the leaves of the Palm House, Emma Morwood in the flowing grey dress of a WW1 nurse, gives a long, wistful performance of the song as she changes cloak for apron, a nurse preparing for a day on the wards.

With little more than their costumes and a pair of shell boxes used as seats by way of staging, the pair go on to create a sense of the forlornness of hope, in songs with words by the likes of Yeats, Donne and Shakespeare set to music by Dunhill, Schubert, Britten and Mahler.

Between the songs, they read extracts of diaries and letters from nurses and soldiers at the front. These brief, matter-of-fact descriptions of the banal horrors of life in the trenches speak of the reality to which the music provides an emotion and colour.

The setting is superb for a recital such as this. The high-rising Palm House is acoustically stunning, perfect for voice and piano. And the lush leaves and orchids are so unlike anything the trenches could ever be, that they give the two singers and pianist Andrew Brown an even greater sense of being a ghostly presence.

Even the tang of soil in the air, the smell of this lush and verdant place, so unlike the stench of trench warfare, is a reminder of how lucky we are to live in a time of relative peace and prosperity. And when a songbird joined Morwood in her rendition of Mahler’s Ulricht, the serendipity was breathtaking.

Morwood has a joyously clear voice – perfect for this intimate style of performance where she is in among her audience. Close up, you can feel the power she is holding back, and yet her voice soars with a delightful lightness of tone.

Elliott doesn’t hold back his power quite as much; his is a dominating voice at times, but one which is able to reign in for more complex passages such as Britten’s music for Since she whom I loved by John Donne.

Instead of only announcing the events through social media 24 hours before, the whole season is now announced in advance. It’s still a pop-up event, music in an unexpected place, but there is an extra tension of expectation about it.

Ghosts in a Garden had its own, unique frisson. When the cycle is repeated as Ghosts in Gallery in Surgeon’s Hall, the Scottish National Gallery, the National Museum and the Portrait Gallery, these places with their own significant ghosts of war will no doubt bring their own unique perspectives.

Running time 30 mins.
Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh
Sunday 23 March 2014.
Run ended.

Ghosts in a Gallery returns May 17/18, June 21 & 29, July 15 & 29, and August 7 2014. Details below.

Love in a… returns on April 30 and various dates to July 2014. Details below.

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