This performance of a new chamber opera by music student Rhiannon Randle was an ambitious project; with the libretto written by Girton college chaplain Malcolm Guite, it was an original production and thus something of a rarity in the Cambridge operatic world.
Based on the biblical story of Satan's temptation of Jesus in the desert, the work (roughly 22 minutes long) was a whirlwind of dramatic and musical delights. The music itself was truly excellent, employing a wide variety of orchestral colour and yet showing a deft sensitivity to the text in the vocal lines.
The vocal writing pushed most of the singers to the edges of their comfortable ranges, using the strain to further dramatic effect where suitable. Indeed, the piece was characterised by a great sense of unity between the disparate musical elements, despite being generally fast paced and containing a plethora of ideas and textures; the musical affect was generally bound so tightly to the libretto that we felt continually involved in the drama.
The opera would perhaps have been better paced were it slightly longer; as it was, the multiple dramatic layers of the Narrator, Chorus and Jesus/ Satan didn't have quite enough time to properly unfold and establish themselves. There was also not enough time spent on the biblical passage itself, with only about a third of the work describing the actual temptations- this made it hard to properly engage with the subject matter at the core of the story, and it instead at times felt more like a moral lecture than a dramatic narrative.
The direction, by Harriet Cartledge, did manage to sidestep these issues in most places however- the intimacy of the venue was used well to create a sense of the immediacy of the action in the temptation scenes, and what little on stage movement there was worked well in the space.
The singers were superb. James Robinson's Narrator was intelligently nuanced with a beautiful tone, and displayed just the right level of detachment from the drama. Henry Hawkesworth's steadfast Jesus and Xavier Hetherington's sinister Satan bore the brunt of the action, and proved well-paired- Hawkesworth's statements of denial packed the necessary vocal punch, whilst Hetherington imbued Satan with an immense amount of character in his unsettlingly slimy portrayal, showing an impressive control in his upper register. They were matched by a crack orchestra of some of the university's top players, deftly guided through the complex score by Joel Sandelson; they captured the spirit of the music and were beyond reproach in their ensemble and engagement. In the few climatic moments where we heard their full forces they could have been more sensitive to the volume of the singers, but given that this was the only performance in the venue balance issues could be forgiven.
The influence of Benjamin Britten (acknowledged in the programme notes) was clear to hear in the instrumental writing, as well as in the role of the Narrator, a figure part of and yet outside the drama which unfolds. This is not to suggest that the music was a parody of his style or that of any of the other influences mentioned; on the contrary, Randle displayed a most definitely original and remarkably mature compositional voice.
For more of Rhiannon Randle's music, check out her soundcloud here.