Music

In opera Violet, time becomes elastic and society crumbles

With dystopian themes and a magnificent score, Violet is the work to see for forward-thinking classical music fans this summer

violet anna dennis

Anna Dennis’s Violet finds her freedoms increase as societal structures start to disintegrate. Photo: Marc Brenner

Seconds, minutes, hours. A day. In technical terms, the passage of time is constant, but our experience of it varies greatly. An hour waiting for anticipated news might feel like days; a wonderful evening can pass in the blink of an eye. It’s a powerful theme for an opera, and, in the case of Violet – composed by Tom Coult and written by Alice Birch – it is a particularly poignant one.

The work has just been premiered at Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk, having been due to be staged there in 2020 – a year when time became elastic, jumping forward in great bursts while simultaneously crawling past in slow motion. The minute hand appeared to be the only being in control, setting her unpredictable pace.

And so it is in Violet, where the eponymous character begins to sense that time is moving of its own accord. Set in a near-present dystopia, Violet is stuck in a loveless marriage with little purpose or will to live. Hours mysteriously disappear, unnoticed initially by anyone other than Violet. As each day becomes truncated, society starts to crumble.

Without the usual schedule – ‘men work from nine until five’ and ‘women cook and clean and sew and play music and practise their calligraphy and tend to the children’ – roles disintegrate. As chaos ensues, Violet finds a secret strength.

Coult’s magnificent score, performed by the London Sinfonietta with Anna Dennis (Violet), Richard Burkhard (Felix), Frances Gregory (Laura) and Andrew MacKenzie-Wicks (The Clock Keeper), twists and turns around a percussive motif that evokes the town’s out-of-control clock tower. Violet (co-produced by Britten Pears Arts, Music Theatre Wales and the Royal Opera) tours to Mold Theatr Clwyd (June 19); London Hackney Empire (June 23) and Buxton International Festival (July 18).

The passing of time – seven decades to be exact – is a key theme across concert halls just now. Although our current monarchy has long been criticised for its engagement with the arts, historically the crown has always been associated with music – from Greensleeves to Händel’s Zadok the Priest, composed for the coronation of King George II in 1727 and recently popularised after being featured in Elizabeth II’s coronation scene in The Crown.

The actual ceremony was commemorated musically by a ‘Band Aid’ style collaboration – the greatest composers of the day contributed short part-songs that make up A Garland for the Queen, first performed at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1953, the night before the official celebration. The idea was taken from a collection of madrigals organised by Thomas Morley and believed to have been presented to Elizabeth I. The 20th-century instalment features nuggets by the likes of Michael Tippett, John Ireland and Ralph Vaughan Williams. A Garland for the Queen will be performed in its entirety by the BBC Singers conducted by Owain Park at Snape Maltings (as part of Aldeburgh Festival) and broadcast live on Radio 3 (June 14, available afterwards via BBC Sounds).

Further royal music can be heard at this year’s BBC Proms when the BBC Singers reconvene, this time joined by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Bramwell Tovey (July 22). In among the usual regal fare (Parry’s I Was Glad and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance) is a new piece (Your Servant, Elizabeth) by Cheryl Frances-Hoad and I Love All Beauteous Things by Judith Weir, current Master of the Queen’s Music.

I’ve received some unusual promotional post (musical press releases; a piano-shaped cake) but nothing as charming as the wildflower seeds sent by Erland Cooper’s team. The composer has created a soundtrack to accompany the Superbloom installation at the Tower of London, in place to mark the Jubilee. Millions of seeds have been planted in the moat, which visitors can admire while listening to Cooper’s Music For Growing Flowers. My own more modest minibloom is also under way – assiduously talked to, as recommended by Prince Charles.

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor

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