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Dalia, Garsington Opera (Susan Elkin reviews)

This show is deeply moving on at least two levels. First, there’s Jessica Duchen’s story for our times about a young Syrian refugee in Britain who finds herself through cricket and is then reunited (sort of) with her own mother. Second, it’s both inspirational and impressive to stage a community opera with 180 all age, diverse performers including – via video – youth choirs from Damascus and Bethlehem and a small group of professionals

Roxana Panufnik’s music is often beautiful, always colourful and makes aptly dramatic use of a wide range of orchestral sounds. There’s some exquisite harp work, for instance, under the rich bass-baritone of Jonathan Lemalu, who plays Harry, Dalia’s foster father in Britain. When there’s conflict in the action Panufnik gives us discordant, strident music – all nicely managed by Douglas Boyd and the Philharmonia Orchestra in the pit.

The sober opening to this uplifting opera presents distressed, depressed people, listless in a refugee camp. Then Dalia (Adrianna Forbes-Dorant – a warm, vibrant singer) arrives at the home of Harry and Maya (Kate Royal – good) where she is made warmly welcome although everyone has to do a lot of adjusting. Their children are played by Erin Field and Joshey Newynskyj, who both sing well. Of course there’s some hostility from the local community especially from cynical, critical Roger (Andrew Watts) at the cricket club. Watts is a counter tenor with a very high range whose troubled, piercing, bitter interjections work perfectly, Eventually coached by Fred (Ed Lyon, tenor) Dalia finds a talent for spin bowling and grows in confidence.

In many ways, though, the high point of this show is the arrival of Dalia’s mother Aisha (Merit Ariane) at a refugee detention centre in Dover. Ariane sings an Islamic lament full of quarter tones sounding like articulated vibrato which is intensely powerful and the scene in which she meets her daughter again is gut wrenching because there is no definite prospect of a happy ending.

There is much about this fine show to commend. It makes excellent, imaginative use of big video screens to show, for instance the choirs elsewhere which haunt Dalia or to stress the tension of the car ride to Dover with just the wing mirrors and the motorway flashing past. Then there’s the oud, played evocatively on stage by Rachel Beckles Willson, the brief appearance of the cream Labrador – part of the community – and the set by Rhiannon Newman Brown which understatedly links the quasi prison at Dover with a cricket net. Moreover the idea that Dalia finds acceptance through cricket sits beautifully at Wormsley which is famous for its historic ground. And full marks to Karen Gillingham for her undaunted direction of this huge cast and enabling them to force this hard-bitten critic to grope for a tissue several times.

First published by Lark Reviews:

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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