Sanctuary is a new opera by Bristolian composer Mathew Pearson. It’s scored for four singers and a quintet – flute, clarinet and string trio. It's a genuinely character-based story about love, family, discrimination, ignorance, trust, belief and what happens when people are put to the test.
Performing an opera presents challenges on many fronts. This production has good points and not so good ones. First, the not so good ones. There is little dynamic variety throughout the performance – it’s virtually all “mezzo forte”. The singing is occasionally not in tune. The staging is mostly static and some of the singers have the bad habit of singers everywhere – they sing out front instead of making eye contact with their fellow performers.
Now the good points. The music is arresting and the musical argument persuasive. For all Pearson’s international list of claimed influences, I am most reminded of the English composer Alan Rawsthorne. The writing is sympathetic, both for the singers and the players. There are even some good tunes. Pearson is plainly gifted and I have no doubt that he will develop a highly individual style and voice.
The words are also real and convincing. The writer has not shied away from the most contemporary language; "some random man", "what’s the worst that could happen?" etc. It’s not done archly or self-consciously but because it’s real. If only more opera libretti were like that.
Finally, Sanctuary is a real opera about real people in a testing situation – the stuff of good drama. It’s contemporary and political and engaged and raw and unpretentious. And well worth an hour of your time.