Far From The Madding Crowd

Despite a stellar cast, JOE BATES finds this new opera a wasted opportunity.

amy lyddon barnaby martin gwilym bowen helen daniels jonathan hyde laurence williams Opera rachel ambrose-evans rupert cabbell-manners Thomas Hardy West Road Concert Hall

West Road Concert Hall, 2-4th February, 7.30. £15, £10.

A new opera by Barnaby Martin (composer) and Rupert Cabbell-Manners (librettist), based on the novel by Thomas Hardy.


Producing any opera is a huge undertaking. But producing a student-written opera, without the support of the Cambridge University Opera Society, is an even bigger one. The chutzpah Barnaby Martin has shown in forming his own opera company, raising funds and producing a full length opera is remarkable.

It is therefore a shame I feel compelled to give it a negative review, but it really wasn’t very good. The opera’s central problem was that its three hours contained no truly interesting musical or dramatic elements. The result was boredom.

Photographs by Lucy Scovell

This mediocrity was made all the more frustrating by the presence of such fantastic singers. Amy Lyddon was absolutely outstanding as Bathsheba. The strength of her voice and the conviction of her acting brought presence and seriousness to her role. Her stage presence, excellent diction and strong projection ensured that she was one of the few singers never to be lost under the weight of the orchestration.

She was supported by an admirable roster of admirers. Gwilym Bowen’s sinister Sergeant Troy impressively brought out the violence that underpins his charm, bringing an edge that his vocal lines otherwise lacked. Jonathan Hyde was an excellently sympathetic Gabriel Oak. His stoical charm was underpinned by a beautiful higher register and strong projection. He was so assured, I almost couldn’t believe it when the programme informed me that he is a first year.

The secondary characters were also a strong bunch. Laurence Williams caught the character of Boldwood well, although his voice and diction was often lost under the orchestration – a common difficulty in almost all young basses. Rachel Ambrose-Evans only really had a single moment to make Fanny Robin shine as a character, which she grasped admirably – her beautifully clear voice was well suited to her character’s innocence. Helen Daniels was an eminently capable Liddy with a stage presence that outstripped the significance of her role.

The successes of the cast was in spite of the material. Despite its gauche orchestration, Barnaby Martin’s score was reasonably accomplished. But it was really incredibly dull. Stylistically, it felt like a film music version of Vaughan Williams. The cheesy, anachronistic style was not to my taste, but more crucially, it failed to ever pick up any steam. The brevity of each musical unit was such that no musical narrative ever formed. In an opera of three hours, this is a real failing. The cheesiest material was actually Martin’s strongest suit. It was the oddly incongruous local dissonances that threw the piece off-kilter. The benefit of kitsch is its potential for fantastic melodic content – a benefit that Martin too rarely exploited.

Ultimately, I may have forgiven the opera its musical failings if it had cohered dramatically. But where the music was mediocre, the libretto was down-right bad. The opera’s fundamental problem was trying to condense a complex, 500 page novel into a stage work. The first forty minutes were genuinely incomprehensible – the scenes whipped by at such a speed that I found myself reaching for my programme again and again.

Whilst the pacing improved, it was still too complex a plot for any of the characters to sufficiently develop. Despite good acting, I found myself unable to care about any of the characters on stage. Their difficulties were compounded by poor direction. The constant use of the chorus was distracting enough, but the blocking was terrible – it all felt deeply unnatural and confusing. The set added to the crowding of the stage. The impressively constructed house was too rigid a form to be much used, resulting in almost all the action occurring in a five meter gap between the house and the hillock.

I could go on with criticisms, but it leaves me with a sick taste in my mouth. The fundamental message is that this opera is too bad to be worth seeing. It seems a horrible message to deliver, given the quality of the cast. More than anything, this opera represents a tragically wasted opportunity.

Perhaps if you are a massive fan of the cast, and of ITV-period-drama style cheese, it may be worth seeing. Otherwise, I’d recommend you save your tenner for another night.