Reviews

The Snow Queen, Blewbury
Rodney M Bennett, Music & Musicians
April 1982

The Snow QueenThose Folk o' Blewbury have been at it again. It is just four years since the people of this Oxfordshire Village which has a population of only 1,400 mounted their own opera from scratch when they commissioned and performed Richard Blackford's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. That work has now been played by quite a few other groups and is currently being turned into an animated TV film for the United States.

It had all begun some years earlier, when the villagers produced Noyes Fludde with such success that they wanted something to follow it and could find nothing suitable. After Sir Gawain it took them a little while to recover but when they had the local impresario Peter Saunders looked around for another composer prepared to write a work for the forces they had available - all amateurs but a great many of them. Eventually he was drawn to the work of Gary Carpenter, a Londoner born in 1951, who is Musical Director of the London School of Contemporary Dance and most widely known for his score for the musical version of The Streets of London, seen at the Theatre Royal, Stratford and Her Majesty's last year. Carpenter invited The Streets of London librettist, Ian Barnett, to collaborate again and they settled on the Hans Anderson tale The Snow Queen. Barnet felt that though it was a fairy tale which had no 'morals' to offer it could pose a few questions about the maturing of a young child into adulthood.

The production team were the same as for Sir Gawain. Olga Latham conducted, Ron Freeborn produced, while Roy East once again created most original and effective sets to go into Blewbury Church. Work began on assembling the cast, orchestra chorus and stage crew last summer, and in the end over 200 people were directly involved.

Carpenter set out to write a score that would not be too difficult for amateur performers but because of its size and variety of detail would not sound inhibited. He had an orchestra of over seventy which included electric guitar, recorder group, Melodicas and a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Of course it did not all come for nothing, and grants for the commission came from the Arts Council and WH Smilth. The biggest single other expense proved to be preparing the various parts for singers and orchestra. By the end total copyists and photo copying charges to the necessary standard had added up to £4,000 even though a lot of the work was done on a voluntary basis.

When I visited Blewbury during the first weekend of the New Year rehearsals were in the final stages. First night was 5 January, and it was clear that the Blewbury enthusiasts had been given a rich meal to digest, some were even wondering if they might not have bitten off a little more than they could chew. It was a far more complex work than Sir Gawain, though skilfully and tunefully written.

In the end the five performances were all sold out despite some problems with colds among the cast and the now notorious early January blizzard sweeping down at the end of the week, which meant that there were a few empty places in the orchestra for the last two nights. The whole remarkable achievement was filmed during its development and is to be subject of a substantial ITV programme due to be networked during Easter.

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