"...its momentum never flags..." The Stage (George Hall)

On 3 June Tom Coult’s Violet opened the 2022 Aldeburgh Festival and has garnered rave reviews. The opera, with a text by Alice Birch and directed by Jude Christian, depicts an insular village community where each day grows progressively and exponentially shorter. As this catastrophe unfolds, the titular character (sung by soprano Anna Dennis) finds a strange freedom from her domineering husband Felix (Richard Burkhard) and life of domestic drudgery.

Violet, a co-production with Music Theatre Wales, makes its London debut at the Hackney Empire on June 23; it tours to Mold (19 June), Buxton Festival (18 June). A second production, conducted by Hendrik Haas and directed by Rahel Thiel, will open at Theater Ulm in Germany on 28 October 2022.

In the Telegraph Alexandra Coghlan called Violet “Fierce and funny, magical and precise, it’s a dazzling piece – the best new British opera we’ve seen for some time.” Richard Morrison in The Times described the piece as “A harrowing night out, but gripping.” Classical Music described the opera’s “irresistible - if apocalyptic – charm”.

The 85-minute score is performed by 13 musicians of the London Sinfonietta and conducted by Andrew Gourlay. The Guardian praised the “authenticity” of Coult’s musical vision. “There is real assurance about every gesture and texture, it’s tremendously accomplished”, wrote Andrew Clements. “Soaring soprano lines for Violet…over fragile, melting textures…are contrasted with often blunt declamation for her husband. He continued, “the bells marking off time and the ticking of clocks are constant features of the wonderfully varied sounds he extracts from the ensemble, reinforced by electronics.” The fixed audio in the piece was realised with the help of composer Jasmin Kent Rodgman.  

Alexandra Coghlan likewise praised Coult’s score, noting “Spare textures suddenly thicken into a web of instrumental strands, contrabass clarinet dark against glinting harp, a riot of ticking and clicking percussion pulsing beneath. Then a voice limited to single, bell-chime syllables – “Yes”, “No” – suddenly flowers into Monteverdi-like melismas; a vocal arpeggio soars up and up.”

Writing in The Stage, George Hall said Violet “avoids rhetoric or grandiosity, utilising a multitude of subtle effects and maintaining interest throughout its span – its momentum never flags.” Richard Fairman (Financial Times) heard in Coult’s music “a palpable sense of mysterious mortal threat, noting that as the opera progressed, the score became “thinner, sparer, each note more precious, as if the oxygen is running out”.

Tom Coult writes of the opera:

The music is greatly varied. Some parts are highly dissonant, others quasi-tonal. There is music inspired by Japanese gagaku, by lounge jazz, by Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. There are no motifs associated with characters, but there is music that returns, often changed…as the village’s sense of time is distorted and hope is extinguished, I have tried to make the music itself become more desiccated, frayed, curdled. There are more silences, the tuning and instrumentation start to melt in the heat…the final portion of the opera contains some of the strangest music I’ve ever written.