George Lloyd’s Iernin at Trinity School Theatre, Croydon

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Rosie Pentreath reports from a rare performance of this Cornish opera

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IerninWe have spent the year celebrating the centenary of Britten and bi-centenaries of Wagner and Verdi. But there is a composer whose 100th year has remained relatively under the radar. This year marks the centenary of English composer George Lloyd and to celebrate, Surrey Opera is staging a little-known opera by the Cornishman.

On an appropriately wind-blown and rain-dampened Saturday evening, I headed to Trinity School Theatre in Croydon for a production of George Lloyd’s Iernin. Set in the wild and remote west of Cornwall, the three-act opera was inspired by, and composed in, the region where I grew up. Suffice to say it is a project close to my heart.

Born in St Ives, Lloyd completed the opera in 1934 at the age of 21. With a libretto provided by his father William, it is a tale of paganism and seduction set against feelings of nationalist antipathy. Eighty years after the work’s short run of performances, Surrey Opera has revived it with brilliant vividness.

In accordance with an enduring Celtic myth, Iernin is one of the nine maidens turned to stone on Boskednan moor near Zennor. When Iernin, played magnificently by soprano Catharine Rogers, is awakened she quickly seduces the honorable Gerent (tenor Edward Hughes). He is soon in turmoil, having to choose between a peace-ensuring marriage to the royal Curnaide, (the elegant mezzo-soprano Felicity Buckland), and his love for the wild Iernin.

The religious Cornish community fears the pagan maiden and the second act reaches a sinister climax as the townspeople turn on her. Baritone Håkan Vramsmo is stirring in his role as Gerent’s concerned friend.

IerninIernin soon realises that she merely loves the idea of Gerent and flees to the moors. Lamenting that she can no longer survive in this world of hate – ‘O make me as once before here with deep clean life, here in silence to dwell ‘til hatred pass from the world’ – she and Gerent engage in an intense scene of farewell. Hughes and Rogers, both with powerful vocals and moving acting, shine in their performances.

The next thing director Alexander Hargreaves does is to cleverly link the opera to the trauma that George Lloyd experienced serving as a marine in World War II. The narrative jumps forward in time rather abruptly and we catch up with Gerent the wounded soldier. In the final scene, he finds that where Iernin once stood (as a stone and as a woman) there is a monument containing the names of men sacrificed to the war. It’s a moving tribute to Lloyd’s sacrifice to war (he was one of only four survivors but was left with shell shock and suffered the effects of oil ingestion).

The orchestra under the direction of conductor Jonathan Butcher deserves a special mention for expert accompaniment and bringing Lloyd’s expressive score to life. There are moments of gorgeous richness in Lloyd’s music. The musicians, a combination of amateur and professional players, provided seamless shading to the singers’ arias and recitatives.

The staging is simple but evocative and I liked the company’s portrayal of the quirks of a rural community. Compact until the final act, which felt a little on the lengthy side, the production is an accessible watch and a triumphant revival of a neglected work.

Next weekend the company will take the production home to Penzance in Cornwall, where the opera will be staged at St John’s Hall on 1-2 November. Visit the Surrey Opera website for more information.

Photos: Peter Marr

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Rosie Pentreath

rosie pentreath

Rosie Pentreath is the digital editor & staff writer of BBC Music...

Rosie Pentreath