Metcalf: Under Milk Wood

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: Tyˆ Cerdd
WORKS: Under Milk Wood
PERFORMER: Michael Douglas Jones, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, Helen-Jane Howells, Paul Carey Jones; Instrumentalists/Wyn Davies (organ, piano, synthesiser)


Dylan Thomas’s writing is so intrisically musical that it takes a brave composer to attempt to add more. After Stravinsky, Corigliano and the Austrian Akos Banlaky (composer of an earlier opera, Unter dem Milchwald), we now have Swansea-born John Metcalf, who sets Thomas’s famous radio play in English with diligent craftsmanship. Texts are sensitively snipped and re-arranged, while the radio ambience is fruitfully maintained in a presentation that places singers, five instrumentalists and sound effects all in the same space, as if in a broadcasting studio.

Recorded shortly after the opera’s premiere last year, this version of the dreams, fantasies and daily routines of Thomas’s seaside village, Llaregyb, glories in vivid ensemble playing and strong female voices, ideal for the colourful characters and libidos portrayed. The men, by contrast, wobble a bit, though there’s no doubting Michael Douglas Jones’s authority as the blind Captain Cat.

Without strong action to propel his score, Metcalf masters the text’s busy kaleidoscope by progressing his scenes through the 12 divisions of the chromatic scale, mirroring the play’s 24-hour timespan. Despite echoes of Britten, there’s rather too much modal thumb-twiddling which flows and lilts rather than offers variety. Still, in its odd way, the opera casts a spell.


Geoff Brown