Opera magazine, Jan 2014
In recent years Surrey Opera has begun boxing above its weight artistically - its première of Coleridge-Taylor's Thelma in 2011 was a coup that marked the company out as one to watch for appealing and artistically visionary planning. George Lloyd's Iernin is a similarly bold choice, mounted in commemoration of the composer's centenary. When lernin was premièred in 1934, it established Lloyd as one of Britain's brightest young talents and was admired by Beecham and Vaughan Williams. Yet a subsequent London production in 1935 was the last time the piece was seen, and Lloyd's refusal to forsake lush late Romanticism for modish atonalism ensured his neglect by the post-war musical establishment. Good for Surrey Opera, then, for enabling this centennial reassessment. While Lloyd is no Benjamin Britten, there is enough in Iernin's score to suggest that, but for his deeply traumatic war service and the subsequent contempt in which his lyricism was held by programmers and commissioning bodies (but not, one suspects, by audiences), he might have made a significant contribution to English opera.
lernin draws on Cornish legend. The title role, a fairy maiden turned to stone, returns to life and ensnares the young nobleman Gerent with her supernatural allure; by the end of the opera she's a stone again and Gerent returns to his betrothed, Cunaide. It's a hokey maelstrom of sorcery, religiosity, revolt and renunciation that offers fine opportunities for mood and imagery: you can hear the wind and smell the heather in this impassioned music. Lloyd concocted this potent brew when he was just 19, and the score displays an astonishing maturity. The final love duet swells ecstatically, the choruses in Act 2 are tremendously stirring, and there are some thrilling climaxes. But momentum sags when the score strays from lernin herself, and things become truly sluggish towards the end.
The director, Alexander Hargreaves, updated the Dark Ages setting to a sort of general-purpose Edwardiana; one had to pretend not to hear references to thanes and the Saxon king. Ellan Parry's designs were clean and serviceable, all bleached wood and draped linen. But there was nothing of the elemental or the mystical in them — a pity for a work rooted in Cornish landscape and folklore. I longed for some swirling mists and scurrying clouds.
In the title role, Catharine Rogers lacked the other-worldly allure fundamental to the character, but she has a most attractive gleam in her voice and she largely succeeded in balancing Iernin's tricky blend of feeling and feyness. Edward Hughes, as her lover/victim Gerent, was a bit pinched; Håkan Vramsmo displayed a lovely tone as Edyrn, while Felicity Buckland fielded a small but valiant voice as a gorgeous-looking Cunaide. An indisposed James Harrison acted the role of Bedwyr while Jon Openshaw sang from the side of the stage; they made an effective duo.
But it was the chorus and orchestra that made this a performance to remember. The chorus was the most potent force on stage, and the evening really came to life with its zesty and heartfelt opening of the second half. And the orchestra was superb: the conductor Jonathan Butcher has honed a terrific ensemble, whose account of this deeply textured score was as fine as could be imagined on this scale.