Svrsvm Corda

Daniel Tse 4 February 2010

A New Opera by Ben Cox on the story of St. Catharine

29th January 2010, West Road Concert Hall

After experiencing technical delays that caused Svrsvm Corda – taken from the motto of St. Catharine’s College – to postpone its planned production at the Cambridge Music Festival, the opera finally received its long-awaited premiere at West Road Concert Hall. The imposing ‘Catz wheel’ immediately struck our eyes when we stepped into Alexandria at Greco-Roman times. It was around this central piece of staging that the drama surrounding Catherine’s conversion to Christianity and her resulting conflict with Emperor Maxentius would unfold.

The instrumental overture of Act I flowed seamlessly into Catharine’s prayer in a pagan temple and her vision of Jesus and Mary. Despite initial problems with the sound balance, it did not take Danielle Rolet very long to settle into her character of Catharine, which she portrayed very persuasively throughout. The “conversion scene” was the zenith of this act, in which Catharine’s preaching transforms a chorus of pagan worshippers to Christianity. This was successfully anchored by Cox’s declamatory word-setting, but the combined effects of visual and musical elements were yet stronger. The ritualistic atmosphere was generated by a mysterious texture in the orchestra, whereas Christianity was represented by both the protagonist’s higher tessitura and the sound of church bells.

After the interval, Act II began with a static, long self-manifestation of Catharine, who was then imprisoned by the Emperor played by Julian Chou-Lambert. Chou-Lambert’s voice lacked a dramatic tone, which meant the tension heightening between Catharine and him fell somewhat flat and only achieved a small part of its intended effect. Fortunately, the Emperor recaptured us in the “murder scene”, effectively portraying the psychological struggle in his inner mind. This classic direction of the plot – a ruler being committed to evil deeds – across many operas was sensitively choreographed. Yet what followed was even more breathtaking: the revelation of the ‘Catz wheel’ as a piece of torturing device. Dazzling lighting and thunderous sound worked fantastically to intensify our anticipation of Catherine’s fateful moment. The audience were then left to reflect on St. Catharine’s faith, courage, and righteousness.

Undoubtedly the highlights of the evening were Rolet’s sensitive portrayal of Catharine and Cox’s musical setting. Rolet’s range of emotional expressions was rich and eclectic; she impassioned the audience by her profound realisation of Catharine’s suffering. Cox’s idiomatic writing translated Herring’s libretto into a characteristic interpretation of the legend on which St. Catharine’s was founded. This was certainly a special evening to Catz members and the audience alike.

Daniel Tse