Jhe greatest challenge presented by Violet, Tom Coult’s first opera, which premiered this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, tackles the basic premises of its plot. The libretto by playwright Alice Birch tells the story of a woman who lives in the largest house in an island village with Felix, her dominating husband, and Laura, an overly attentive maid, and is forced to follow a daily routine of strictly domestic tasks. “Since I lived,” Violet says at one point, “I never had anything like hope or aspiration or joy for the potential of what my life could be.”
There is no indication of where the village is and when the action takes place, nor is there any explanation of why time begins to crumble, losing an hour a day, until at the end of the opera there is nothing left at all. As a clockmaker marks the days getting shorter and shorter, village society gradually disintegrates – cattle are destroyed, children are sacrificed – but Violet rejoices in the freedom afforded by the chaos; she builds a boat and takes it to shore to find out what the rest of the world is like.
It’s certainly a powerful construct, but one that needs to be supported for the opera to convey that power. At times, this element of fantasy seems to clash with the realism of Violet’s predicament and the real contemporary issues it raises. Although quite straightforward, Jude Christian’s production with drawings by Rosie Elnile, adds another problematic layer by mixing historical eras into its visuals – the opening scene suggests a Victorian house, while, later on, the men sit down to a meal carrying Elizabethan strawberries.
What lends the opera credence, however, is Coult’s score. Soprano lines soaring for Violet, negotiated with fabulous balance by Anna Dennisoften on fragile and melting textures of the 14 musicians of the London Sinfonietta conducted by Andre Gourlay, oppose an often brutal declamation for her husband, while the bells that mark the hour and the ticking of the clocks are constants of the wonderfully varied sounds that he extracts from the whole, reinforced by electronics . There is real confidence in every gesture and every texture, it’s wonderfully accomplished; Coult at least clearly believes in the authenticity of what his opera is.