I have to confess to not really looking forward to an opera about Welsh choirs and coal mines. What next, a contemporary dance about rugby? Oh, we’ve had that.
I was very pleasantly surprised by Blaze of Glory!, although I think the name and the supporting artwork really does not do this entertaining musical justice. I am guessing Blaze refers to their blazers or is it the coal they mine that keeps the world ablaze (I think it is the former).
The story is a blending of true anecdotes from the mining communities of South Wales, with some better known than others, such as the legendary relationship between Paul Robeson and the South Wales NUM. These include a revamped Welsh male voice choir (or Glee) secretly recruiting a yodelling brewer from who had been rejected by a rival group, and thereby having an advantage for a performance of Le Tyrol.
While this is a sort of follow on from Rhondda Rips It Up that the women in the witty opening scene proclaims to be a “This is a story about – men!” in a mining village in the 1950s after a dreadful colliery disaster and where the pit closure programmes threatens their own mine. It takes the enthusiasm of the wonderful Rebecca Evans in the form of accompanist (and unmarried of course) Miss Price to persuade collier (and bachelor) Dafydd Pugh to lift the baton again and aim for the choral stars.
Rebecca Evans, Themba Mvula and Feargal Mostyn-Williams
Nafissatou Batu, Angharad Lyddon and Angharad Morgan
The show, and it is better to describe it as a feel good musical, is created by some of the Rhondda creative team, librettist Emma Jenkins and director Caroline Clegg who are joined by composer David Hackbridge-Johnson. The result is a right old mish mash of musical styles, conducted by Stephen Higgins, but it does work. We have things like an Andrews Sister female trio (Angharad Morgan, Nafissatou Batu Daramy and Angharad Lyddon) who pop up all over the place, something like Mozart’s three ladies and three boys and a Greek chorus but in 50s attire and doo-wopping along. Great fun. Similarly the splendid Themba Mvula plays and finely sings a bluesy modern singer (and mover).
Then of course we have the hymns and arias that are the bread (of Heaven) and butter of male voice choirs and showpiece works for the eisteddfodau competitions. For the Cardiff opening performance we were graced with the Dowlais Choir working with the WNO chorus members. Apparently at other venues local choirs will be involved.
It is all played out in flexible set designs from Madeline Boyd which enable switching around from the coalface to the social club, a pub in Treorchy to the eisteddfod maes (or at least competition tent). Whether the crumbled back wall of the social club, with the pithead in background, is symbolic of what is to come I am not certain.
The musical is not perfect but then what is. The first half of the show keeps the audience with a huge collective grin and plenty of belly laughs. The theatricality is superb and wildly inventive. The relationship between Rebecca Evans and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts lovable Mr Pugh is delicious and exquisitely performed. The second half has to contain contrast, darkness, sadness and then some form of triumph and moral – it is a musical after all. It would ruin the enjoyment to go through all of the plot ups and downs but suffice to say the value of the second half comes from wonderful singing.
The race element was handled sensibly and the oh so subtle gay relationship was well, oh so subtle. I do hope that was also . a true story.
What will audiences who have no knowledge or shared history with the coalfields make of it? Who knows? I am sure the humour will travel and the singing should delight any audience that enjoys song.
The big challenge is getting across to audiences what Blaze of Glory! is which takes us back to where we began. This is a feel-good, nostalgic, romantic story embedded in real stories, splendidly acted and gloriously sung. It is black gold. The task now is getting the message out.
Main image Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and Rebecca Evans
Wales Millennium Centre until March 18 and touring until May 20.
Images Kirsten Mcternan