Opera Iris Dreaming tells tragic life of New Zealand writer Robin Hyde
Adam Chamber Music Festival
Joanne Roughton-Arnold, NZ Trio
Monday February 6, 2pm
Reviewed by Margot Hannigan
Waitangi Day is a day of national celebration, and what could be more meaningful than this musical collaboration between composer Dame Gillian Whitehead, the experimental NZ Trio, poet-librettist Fleur Adcock and soprano Joanne Roughton-Arnold, who commissioned the chamber opera about Robin Hyde and returned to Nelson to give us its New Zealand premiere.
Iris Wilkinson, alias Robin Hyde, lived briefly from 1906 to 1939. She lost two children – one still-born, and one to adoption. She always believed in herself as a writer, though only now is she being widely recognised. Whitehead said she should be as celebrated as Katherine Mansfield.
The opera "Iris Dreaming" powerfully captures her inner determination to survive through illness, poverty and motherly grief. It opens in pre-war London, 1939, in an attic bedroom – single bed, lamp-lit desk – Iris in a dressing gown and needing a stick to move around. "Patient but obdurate', calling for an end to pain, for her lost child Derek, and nostalgically recalling her youth in Wellington.
She is tragically dislocated and commits suicide.
This emotional drama is powerfully conveyed by Roughton-Arnold's piercing voice, blended impeccably with soulful violin and cello, percussive heart-beat rhythms on piano, and an ominous gong, marking pauses in the saga.
We learn of the terrible disturbing months Iris spent in China during the war with Japan, and Iris' escape to London. The NZ Trio add stamping military rhythms and incoherent grief-stricken voices to their instrumental music.
The end beautifully draws us and Iris back to sounds of New Zealand with Maori taonga puoro- percussive rain water and tapping stones.
As Bob Bickerton announced, these were "musical conversations that honour our ancestors."
The NZ Trio have a reputation for tackling new composition and their performance of David Hamilton's electrifying "The Faraday Cage" and Claire Cowan's hypnotic "Ultraviolet" were worthy preludes to this unforgettable premiere of the opera "Iris Dreaming", cleverly adapted for just three musicians, and minimally staged in the confined space of the Theatre Royal by Sara Brodie, where the acoustic effects, specially installed for the Festival, impressed the enraptured audience.
A superb operatic performance that deserves to be repeated throughout New Zealand.