The Immortal Hour continues at the Finborough Theatre, London until 26 August.
Written by Rutland Boughton in 1912, The Immortal Hour has not proved particularly immortal. And it isn’t difficult to see why. Its complex, symbolic plot rooted in Celtic mythology was out of date almost before the first performance. The late Victorians may have loved fairies, spirits and whatnot (Christina Rossetti, William Lang, Iolanthe and much more) but Edwardians on the brink of war did not and neither have many people since.
Then there’s the dreadful libretto by William Sharp, aka Fiona Macleod, which includes clumsy, fey lines such as ‘Their limbs are more white than shafts of moonshine’. The score has its moments – but they’re sadly few and far between. This piece may have been admired by both Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams but it doesn’t bear any meaningful comparison with either. When a work hasn’t been revived for a long time there’s usually a reason. Despite some success in 1922 and 1932 it hasn’t now been seen since 1953.
In this production, moreover, there are problems with singing style. The piece is definitely an opera – presented here as an eight-hander with four-piece band (well directed by Inga Davis-Rutter) immediately behind the action on the Finborough’s tiny stage. There are none of the usual musical theatre mics and some of the cast are clearly singing in a style they are unused to.
Michelle Cornelius looks – quite literally – fabulous as Etain who becomes Queen by marriage but then reverts to a former lover and breaks her husband’s heart. With her magnificent bone structure, near-shaven head and deeply eloquent eyes she has huge stage presence. And she sings duets with real passion and sympathy. Unfortunately she loses almost all operatic resonance and volume on the lower contralto notes in solo work. Matthew Crowe – generally convincing as Manus – has a similar problem with parts of his range.
On the other hand, Stiofan O’Doherty as Dalua – the eventual triumphant lover – is an outstanding bass singer (and pleasing actor) who’d grace any opera. And Jeff Smyth turns in a strong all round performance as Eochaidh. So it’s a rather uneasy mixture.
The real stars of this fey, quirky, rather eccentric and distinctly patchy show are hands and screens. I loved the stylised manual ballet – reminiscent at times of Thai or Balinese dancing – which all characters use as they point, writhe and create spiky brittle shapes. And designer Bethany Wells does well with five gauze screens which act as trees behind which mystic characters are semi-concealed and which line up neatly as an impressively effective concertina-like flat at other times.