The Snow Queen
Stephen Walsh, The Observer
17 January 1982

The Snow QueenThat extraordinary oasis of village enterprise, Blewbury, in Oxfordshire, has for the second time commissioned an opera from a young British composer, and performed it with success in the village's thirteenth-century church. In 1978, they put on Richard Blackford's one-act Sir Gawain; now the Londoner Gary Carpenter has come up with a full-length opera on The Snow Queen, a much more ambitious project, but one pretty well tailored to the resources of this lively but of course mainly amateur community. It was also perilously topical - though luckily not quite so as to bring about its own closure (I saw it on 5 January).

Blewbury has apparently turned itself into a minor arts centre and has put on plays and art shows as well as operas, always using its own local talent. The Snow Queen was done without professionals. There were lots of parts for children (some of them marvellously touching, like Jenny Marshall's Gerda and the coolly assured Kay of George Long) and sensibly scaled adult parts for amateur singers and actors.

From the orchestra (skilfully controlled by Olga Latham) Carpenter got variety by numbers rather than technical complication, and this made available to him certain generalised procedures for creating a degree of harmonic richness while sticking to a simple modal style of melody. So the music glittered and shimmered, in a way that matched Ron Freeborn's cleverly stylised production and Roy East's designs, with their cunning techniques for suggesting magic through simple images.

The difficulty of writing such a work is only too obvious. It must be clear, direct and comprehensible, but not naive and above all not boring. Carpenter is a sophisticated composer who has worked with professional modern dance companies, and there are certainly times in The Snow Queen when one feels that the adherence to a modal style costs him something in expressive and dramatic range. However, after a slow start, the work grows in interest, expands in texture and harmony, and ends by being extremely moving. It has good characters, good action, quite good tunes and an allegorical power comparable to that of Andersen's story; no mean achievement. Incidentally the production will be the subject of an ATV film to be shown in the spring.

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