You have to wonder what Vaughan Williams was on when he composed The Poisoned Kiss.
Written when he was already well into the second half of his long life, the opera is an almost psychedelic witches’ brew of styles and genres such as I know nowhere else in the composer’s output.
The mind-boggling tale centres on a spurned necromancer’s plan to revenge himself on the double-crossing Empress by raising his daughter on poison. Then, when the royal son falls in love with the young lady (who reciprocates his love), their first kiss will kill him. Honestly.
A witty, slightly wide-eyed libretto valiantly unfolds the action, and Vaughan Williams’ music creates a scrapbook of word-setting. This is more like a sung play than a developing, multi-layered opera, and in his cutting and pasting the composer brings echoes of Gilbert & Sullivan, The Magic Flute, baroque masques, melodramatic pantomimes, and even presages aspects of Bernstein’s Candide and Tippett’s Midsummet Marriage – phew.
Just the ticket, then, for a production by young people, and it proved a brave and enterprising choice for this year’s summer opera from students of the University of Birmingham. They entered into proceedings last weekend with exuberance and an impressive amount of vocal ability.
Outstanding in the cast were Joseph Kennedy as the vitriolic Dispacus and, even more so, Kathryn Walker as his poisonous daughter Tormentilla.
Walker is a powerful talent to watch. Wonderfully even throughout, her singing has particularly rich lower tones, and she has a highly impressive stage-persona. As her attendant Angelica, Sophie Levi made a perfect foil, her voice full, true and well-projected.
Hamish Newport’s little orchestra, neat and deft, produced sounds better-nourished than its numbers would imply, Chris Parnell’s picaresque direction was entirely appropriate, well suited to the compact Barber Institute stage, and there was some charming choreography.
Technically things weren’t so good. The sound-system was clunky, one of the lights was playing up long before Friday’s performance started, and soon into the first act the stage-lighting failed, leading to a long delay whilst repairs were made. Perhaps not so much a Poisoned Kiss, more a poisoned chalice.