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Review: The Seal Woman @ Harbour Arts Centre

By Elspeth Burdette

Writer Elspeth makes the trip down to Irvine to review the Scots Opera Project’s production of the ‘Celtic Folk Opera’.

Anyone familiar with Nordic or Celtic folk tales will be aware of the legend of the selkies, or the ‘seal folk’: part seal, part human creatures who shed their seal skins a few times a year to venture onto land in human form. Legend has it that if someone, generally a man, comes upon a selkie in human form and steals her discarded seal skin, she will become his wife. Should she ever find her seal skin, the selkie will return to the sea. 

The Scots Opera Project’s production of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser and Granville Bantock’s The Seal-Woman tells this very story, through a mix of Gaelic, English, and Scots songs. In the first act of this story, the Cailleach (Ulrike Wutscher), a Gaelic word for a wise, old woman, sings of the legend of the selkies in the Western Isles of the Scottish Hebrides while waiting for the fishermen to return to the island. Drunk and half dreaming, she hears the Seal-Woman (Sioned Gwen Davies) and her Seal-Sister (Colleen Nicoll). Upon the return of the fishermen, the Islesman (David Douglas) remains behind and catches a glimpse of the two selkies. He steals their seal skin robes and declares his love for the Seal-Woman. Dreaming of love herself, she agrees to go with him if he will allow her Seal-Sister to return to the sea. The second act opens seven years later: the Seal-Woman and the Islesman have a child, Morag. However, when the Seal-Woman uncovers her seal skin buried beneath the pea, she is caught between two worlds and must choose between her family on land and her life in the sea. The Islesman returns in time to see his wife leap from the cliff and return to the sea, with the promise she will guide the fish to his net and in this way provide for their daughter. 

The Celtic Folk Opera, as it was categorised by its creators, premiered in 1924 in Birmingham after a decade-long collaboration between Marjory Kennedy-Fraser and Granville Bantock. Following its opening run in Birmingham, the opera largely vanished from contemporary production – and despite the Scottish setting – had never been premiered in Scotland until the Scots Opera Project gave it wings. 

The performance took place in an intimate theatre, the Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine, right along the water – an appropriate setting for an opera about the draw of the sea. Buoys, nets, and general sea paraphernalia were draped around the stage –  minimalistic, but suited to the small space. The use of a fishing net as the wedding veil for the Seal-Woman was particularly effective in symbolising the pull of the sea against the life she was coerced into, and by extension, her captivity on land

The score itself was an interesting blend of modern, 20th century contemporary music, vaguely reminiscent of Wagner, along with traditional Scottish music. Of particular importance was the sole instrumentalist, the pianist Hebba Benyaghla, who supported the entire performance. She balanced her various roles superbly, navigating complex chordal accompaniment and melodic solos. 

While the small auditorium provided us a unique opportunity to see every facial expression, feeling almost like a part of the set, for the singers with operatic voices designed to fill a multi-tiered concert hall, their resonance was unable to shine through. Regardless, Gwen Davies, as the title role, stood out with the most typically operatic voice. 

The audience favourite was clearly the Cailleach. Her drunken shuffling and the omnipresent hip-flask caused the few laughs of the show, while Wutscher’s vocals, in the shift from storytelling on a single note to soaring melodies, provided some of the most beautiful moments of the show. 

While all of the vocals were good, including those of the chorus, my personal favourite moment can be attributed to Michael Longden. As the Cailleach tells the story of how the selkies came to exist, Longden sings a lullaby as the Water-Kelpie. Although a small and insignificant point in the overall story, his voice, the melody, and the accompaniment captured a powerful range of emotions in only a few lines of music. 

Overall, the Scots Opera Project should be applauded for a wonderful performance, and particularly for facilitating the Scottish premiere of an obscure piece of opera history. Any flaws come from the piece itself, not the performance or performers.


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