Review: Upon this Handful of Earth

A compelling production with a prescient universal message at its heart. Gisle Kverndokk’s deft writing for voice and orchestra and Aksel-Otto Bull’s pragmatic libretto steered this commission away from what could have easily been a worthy issue-driven statement.

Upon this Handful of Earth is an efficient opera for a small cast plus adult and children’s chorus that draws in part on Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s text “Mass for the World” from the 1920s, and combines it with present-day accounts of climate change disasters and austere biblical references.

Such artistic endeavours have a tendency to come across as a little worthy. And whilst some of the acting in this staged performance was found to be lacking, there was still an overall cohesion to the entire work brought out by believable characters, resolute performances and a compelling score. Despite its often bleak dramatic moments, there was intensity baked into the work – a robust work that deserves more attention outside of Norway, perhaps in a drier acoustic with a proscenium arch.

Some of the impact of the work was down to proximity. Audience and chorus were effectively in the round overlooking the action on the centre stage. A warmth eminated from proceedings that made this less something we were observing, more something we were all responsible for.

But there was also a sense of geographic context which added another dimension to proceedings. In one part of the drama sees The Businessman (Trump-like in his lines) illustrate the source of his profits during a work performed in a city which has itself benefitted from the wholesale extraction of oil on the Norwegian coastline. This local relevance gives the opera a potency which, combined with the intimate surroundings of Oslo’s Trinity Church, made the message all the more difficult to ignore.

Gisle Kverndokk’s writing is accessible and inclusive, but avoids cliche or sentimentality. There is originality to his musical language which provides gravitas to the subject material whilst not being pompous or aloof. There are strong musical theatre elements in some of the arias, in particular The Young Man’s aria ‘Darkness has eliminated the light’ and The Wife’s lamentMother Earth is just a barren land, a wasteland‘. Elsewhere in the work, the musical theatre style acts as a foundation of a confident distinctive language. In other places its use is a little more evident, perhaps jarringly so.

The composer writes lovingly for the voice and for chorus, crafting rich evocative sequences with close harmony and delicious diminished chords, resulting in a sophisticated palette that at times out-Rutters John Rutter.

There was a burnished quality to the opening melodic phrase – a sort of idee fix for the central message ‘Upon this handful of earth‘.

All of the singers provided strong contributions to the production, though one or two occassionally seemed lost in the acoustic melee.

Baritone Halvor F Melinen played the The Priestt with a solid voice which swam around Kverndokk’s lush score. Njal Spabo as The Businessman boomed with a sense of menace from time to time,. Although the diction was undoubtedly there throughout sometimes his bombast seemed a little overplayed. Philip Weiss-Hagen gave an assured performance as The Child.

Using children to recite the eyewitness accounts from various media reports made for a chilling perspective. The community-feel to proceedings threw focus on the next generation in these moments. Hope shone through after the Noah-esque storm had passed, though what was left was a sense that it was the next generation who would save us, the people who had essentially created the problem for them to solve. At a point in time when schoolchildren are striking to protest against climate change inaction, this dramatic twist made the work even more potent and very difficult to shake off.

This perforamnce of Upon This Handful of Earth was part of the Oslo International Church Music Festival 2019 on Sunday 24 March.

Listen to a Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast interview with composer and librettist Gisle Kverndokk and Aksel-Otto Bull on Audioboom and Spotify.