By Andrew Clements
For The Guardian
On this side of the Atlantic, Ned Rorem, now 88, is best known as a composer of exquisitely crafted songs; we hear very little of the rest of his substantial output, which covers virtually every musical genre and includes nine operas. The most recent of them, the chamber opera Our Town, based on Thornton Wilder's play, was first performed in 2006; this production by students from the Guildhall School is its European premiere.
Wilder's picture of life in small-town New Hampshire in the years before the first world war attracted the attention of several composers before Rorem, and his librettist JD McClatchy managed to secure the rights to adapt it. They remained very faithful to the original, making one strand of the play, the love story between George and Emily, the central focus, but preserving its overall simplicity, with a bare stage, few props and much use of mime.
Stephen Medcalf's beautifully judged Guildhall production maintains that directness. In his staging, the action commutes backwards and forwards between the early 1900s and the present day, with Wilder's narrator, the Stage Manager (Stuart Laing), becoming an iPad-wielding lecturer leading a seminar on life in America a century ago. Video projections - maps, photographs, portions of the text - extend an idea that Wilder himself had introduced in the play.
It could all be sentimental and too cosily American, but, in fact, it's charming and rather touching, especially in the final act, when the action takes an unexpected twist into fantasy. Rorem's music is spare and typically diatonic, and the writing for chamber orchestra (conducted by Clive Timms) so transparent that every word of the text is clear. Alexandros Tsiloganis is George and Sky Ingram sings Emily; both are excellent, though in what is such a consistently fine company achievement, it's almost invidious to pick out individuals.
Photo by Tristram Kenton for the Guardian