In a remote fishing village a lone figure confronts an unexplained death, standing tormented but unbroken against fate, the community and the elements of sea and wind that surge through every note of the score. No, not Peter Grimes: this is Vaughan Williams’s 1932 operatic setting of Synge’s Riders to the Sea. But Vaughan Williams’s operas are undramatic, runs the received wisdom. There were no great British operas between Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and the premiere of Grimes in 1945, we’re repeatedly told.
This student production of Riders to the Sea didn’t just refute those assumptions: it threw them into a riptide and watched them being dragged under and swept away. From Vaughan Williams’s opening bars, the gale starts to rise and the green-grey swell begins to gather its murderous strength. Strings foam and swirl, oboes keen: economically, powerfully and without a trace of sentimentality, Vaughan Williams unfolds a 40-minute anatomy of grief. In the foreground, meanwhile, two sisters go about their daily tasks and fret over how to conceal from their ageing mother the scraps of damp clothing that seem to prove that yet another of her sons has been lost to the sea.
Birmingham Conservatoire’s staff director Michael Barry has been achieving striking results with limited means for some years now, largely untroubled by attention from national critics, and his production made its points simply. The set provided the rudiments of an Irish cottage, with the sky above it streaked by an angry beam of light. The two sisters (Aimée Fisk and Hannah McDonald) both sounded and looked like siblings, their voices determinedly bright and firm, only briefly fading off into tenderness or hardening with pain — vocal acting that was of a piece with Barry’s naturalistic direction. But the drama pivots on their mother Maurya, sung by Samantha Oxborough: an artist in her twenties who managed not only to embody a woman with a lifetime’s harsh experience, but whose voice had a core of savage intensity and a glow that in her defiant monologues convinced you that you were hearing a masterpiece.