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The Lady from the Sea - Festival blogger review

Festival blogger Helena Smith reviews Scottish Opera's The Lady from the Sea.

The Fringe is over, Edinburgh’s streets are clear of its harlequin parade of performers and touts and a volley of thunderstorms suggest that summer is ending too. But the Festival is here until the Virgin Money Fireworks and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra sound on Sunday. And one of the most interesting facets of the Festival programming has been saved till last: a series of new chamber operas by Scottish Opera.

The first of these, The Lady From the Sea, premiered last night in the King’s Theatre: its composer is Craig Armstrong, best known as the creator of the eclectic, bravura scores for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet andMoulin Rouge!

His opera, abbreviated to just over an hour and with an accordingly sparse libretto by writer Zoë Strachan, is based on Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea, the story of a lighthousekeeper’s daughter, Ellida, trapped between her love for a sailor and her duty to her husband.

Armstrong and Strachan together effectively capture her agonised yearning, the ecstasy when the lover returns, and the sunlit breaking of his spell on her. It’s a powerful story, taut with the drama of a Freudian search for self-realisation versus the constrictions of society, and infused with fairytale archetypes: the lost lover, the tug of the sea and the liberating gift of free choice.

But the story is compressed to the extent that the minor characters seem too inconsequential, something intensified by Claire Booth’s powerful performance as Ellida. She transports us straight to the emotional register of Munch’s The Scream, falling to the floor – clawing and tugging at her bodice, a symbol of societal and actual restraint, gasping for air. Ellida is a fish out of water, longing to return to it.

In dramatic terms, the minor characters seem to belong to another and much more conventional production – it's hard to imagine seeing the opera in the 21st century why the catty step-daughter and initially inconsequential husband have any hold on Ellida’s forceful character. The strongest moments of Armstrong’s score occur when it steps outside its own boundaries – such as when the six incidental characters take on the role of a chorus, powerful and threatening, Ellida standing bewildered on the outside.

It’s unfortunate for Armstrong that the story of The Lady From the Sea conjures Wagner’s storm-lashed and disturbing The Flying Dutchman. His work perhaps falls under its shadow, but Scottish Opera’s production grips with the strong central performance of Claire Booth, and rippling film of the sea washing the set with light and movement.

Read Helena's website or her blog Eat Hackney. She tweets as @eathackney.

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