October 18, 2003
Haus der Festspiele

Reunited - and it feels so good

Param Vir's Ion at the Festwochen


Param Vir


David Lan - Libretto
Michael McCarthy - Director
Michael Rafferty - Conductor
musikFabrik NRW
Simon Banham - Stage design
Ace McCarron - Lights

Michael Bennett - Tenor (Ion)
Rita Cullis - Soprano (Creusa)
Martin Robson - Bass (Xuthus)
Mark Richardson - Bass baritone (old servant)
Gwion Thomas - Baritone (Hermes, young servant)
Nuala Willis - Mezzosoprano (Pythia)
Lousie Walsh - Soprano (Athene)
Giselle Minns, Tara Harrison - Soprano
Trine Bastrup Møller, Alison Kettlewell, Emily Bauer-Jones - Mezzosoprano (servants of Creusa)
Henry Ward - Pianist

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Reunited - and it feels so good

Param Vir's Ion at the Festwochen

by Nancy Chapple / Fotos: Kai Bienert

Usually when this reviewer attends a musical performance, she finds herself agreeing with the audience consensus that can be felt by taking the room temperature - fascinating, disappointing, a mix. It's then her task to articulate just what made it that way. But at the second and last performance of Param Vir's new opera Ion at the Berliner Festspiele, the audience seemed mightily displeased - and I loved the work. How could this happen? It seems the Berlin audience was disturbed by the work's direct simplicity; a woman near me called the ending "tacky". Can one read something there about a sophisticated audience's lack of capacity for wonder?

The audience was small, and scattered throughout the hall at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele with its endlessly long rows of seats. Brass and bass drum communicate a sense of drama - and foreboding. A messenger tells us how Creusa was compelled to abandon her newborn son in a cave. We immediately take to the abandoned son Ion (Michael Bennett), who, after being found and brought up by a priestess at the Temple of Apollo, has become a temple guard: he's open, naive, curious, proud of his job, and his tenor voice is high, flexible, expressive.

The set is simple: a staircase of ten steps that gets pushed to different angles, a slit of light in varying luminescent colors that grows and shrinks to suggest the break of day or a drastic change in mood.


The role of the chorus in this modern Greek drama is resolved beautifully - five agile young women (two sopranos, three mezzos) with long hair in strict buns, dressed in black with long shawls. They reflect the female psyche of the woman they serve, and share her pain at her childlessness (as her husband believes) or forced abandonment of her infant son (as she herself knows). They do not lament. Early on, they act more than sing: they lean forward together listening to Creusa, they look critically at a newcomer on the stage. At later moments, they weave complex vocal textures, for instance when describing that the children of a mortal and a god are unhappy. There's a beautiful moment where the five voices combine with a xylophone and a few claps to wish "women's" revenge on Ion.

This production was sung in English with German supertitles. The libretto in its translation by David Lam is catchy, and modern: "A trial against Apollo? Someone will lose - and it won't be the god." A comment about men - "They make our lives rigid" - stuck in the ear. One linguistic touch felt corny: Ion gets his name as he is the first young man that Xuthos encounters when he leaves the temple: "From when I first caught sight of you, I had my 'eye on' you".

Many vital issues are touched on. At one point, we feel we have an old and loyal friend of Creusa's on stage with her. He listens, takes her part. And yet it's unsettling when he suggests taking revenge ("on your husband ... on the boy"). What would have happened if he hadn't given that advice? Would the women resort to violence if the men did not incite them to do so? And there are interesting differences between the young and the old: a confused young man, looking to understand who he is and how the pieces fit together contrasted with the certainty of the older characters - a certainty that turns out to be arrogant and misled, stubborn and often wrong.

The dramatic role of the much put-upon mother Creusa was sung by Rita Cullis - who sometimes acted and always sang convincingly.


The transitions between scenes or the last point in a scene were sometimes marked with silence - an unusual effect, as if this better underlined the seriousness of the occasion than a loud passage in the horns. The action is easy to follow - much of it is recounted on stage rather than actually carried out in front of our eyes, but we quickly understand who's who and how they relate. The story is pure, simple, straight, even though it deals with complex emotional reactions, with undercurrents and unexpected turns. The music, on the other hand, is richly textured; supporting the simple story. At moments it is highly dramatic, substituting for real action on the stage.

The ending is unrelentingly positive and affirmative. Unusually enough, things work out for Creusa and Ion, and by extension for all around them. The visual effects are in a glowing gold, and good wins. I loved it.