Freedom. Bread and Peace, Arts By The Sea, Shelley Theatre

revuKarenoperaBOURNEMOUTH’s Arts By The Sea festival is always rich with new work, exploratory, experimental, avant-garde, sometimes just plain wacky! It is ambitious and surprising and if you don’t like some things, you will also find others that will interest and excite you.

One of this year’s new works was Freedom, Bread and Peace, a music-theatre semi-opera that set out to tell the story of the Soviet Union from the October Revolution to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. No pressure, then! Just encompassing 80 years of possibly the most turbulent and tumultuous century in recorded history – in music; in two hours!

Composer Karen Wimhurst, who lives in North Dorset, drew on many different themes and inspirations for her music – there were hints of jazz and klezmer (she is an accomplished musician in both genres), bombastic brass band music (played by a great young quartet of Poole schoolboys), dance rhythms from Hungary and Ukraine, and heroic anthems that brought the rolling steppes and endless vistas vividly to mind. It was powerful stuff and brilliantly played by a group of experienced professional musicians, with the addition of two young drummers and a choir directed by the composer.

There were fine soloists – Elisha Russell, in an ivory gown and head-dress like a Russian princess, and an imposing bass, Ed Bersey. A chorus of five Arts University students, Greta James, Madeleine Marshall, Ratidza Masunda, Beth Thompson and Niall Walker, narrated, chanted and sang, with often complicated movement, wearing shift dresses with red and yellow marks, and frankly peculiar headdresses that looked like large, brightly coloured birds-nests.

Keeping the costs to an absolute minimum, the director Katharine Piercey was not able to source expensive archive footage, using instead video projections, photographs and poster images that were manipulated, multiplied and overlaid by designer Kavi (Ilze Briede). The images were often provocative, sometimes shocking and reflected the constantly shifting power games played with the lives of ordinary Russians.

Unfortunately, it was hard to focus on some of the images because the muslin hangings on to which they were projected were never still.

The Shelley Theatre is undoubtedly atmospheric, and the director made the best use she could of both the auditorium and the stage and surroundings to marshall and move her large forces of musicians and performers.
But there were inherent problems and it would be good to see this piece in a larger space, and with a more effective “screen” for the projections.

The introduction by Dan Somogyi, whose parents were refugees from the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union in the 1950s, was interesting on the background to the opera, which has taken several years to bring to the stage. But the history of the Soviet Union, brief though he kept it, was probably not necessary, since we all had crib sheets (and very useful little torches with which to read them).

It is a vast subject, one which tells the story of a people coming through the painful processes of revolution, the trauma of civil war, the rise of a brutal dictator, purges, starvation, the failure of collective farming, a world war in which the suffering and courage of the Russian people won the admiration of the free world and then the dark years of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, before the light floods in with perestroika, glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The final scene is one of hope for a fair and just society and the question, how this may be achieved? The answer was a pluralist socialism, free from oppression, a potent message for a fractured and traumatised 21st century world.

Freedom, Bread and Peace (bread, incidentally, as a symbol of life and the everyday Russian staple, the strong black bread that was often the only food in the bitter civil war and that sustained besieged soldiers and citizens in the Second World War) is a powerful and important piece. But at times it felt like a work-in-progress, made on a shoe-string. The music is full of energy, drama and the culture of Russia and its satellites and it deserves to be given the resources its epic subject demands (Arts Council please note!).  FC

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