Rhinegold Photo credit: Robert Piwko
The Gardeners premiered in concert at Conway Hall, London, on 18 June 2019

Josephine Miles

Event of the month: The Gardeners

4:18, 5th August 2019

The Gardeners – Robert Hugill

Conway Hall, London

Review by Josephine Miles


Family tensions

Robert Hugill’s new opera, The Gardeners, was inspired by a 2017 article about a Palestinian family of gardeners tending a commonwealth war cemetery in Gaza. The family in question was close-knit, but Hugill felt that an exploration of potential intergenerational tensions within a family tending war graves in a politically divided country lent itself to operatic treatment.

The story revolves around the Old Gardener, who talks sympathetically with The Dead (overseas soldiers who once ‘invaded’ his country) and the Angry Young Man, his frustrated grandson who bitterly resents the intrusion of The Dead: ‘We should take up arms and fight! Show the oppressors who they’re dealing with!’ The young man’s father, mother and grandmother try to reason with him, but when the graves are vandalised – and the young man is suspected – tensions heighten until the Old Gardener collapses and dies. The young man now feels overwhelming regret and starts hearing the voices of The Dead himself.

At the world premiere, a small instrumental ensemble and five soloists were on stage at London’s Conway Hall, overlooked by The Dead, a five-part male chorus in the gallery. Hugill’s enveloping sound-world is full of 20th-century British influences, from Britten to Tippett and Tavener. Countertenor Magid El-Bushra as the Angry Young Man sang with praiseworthy clarity; and baritone Peter Brathwaite, playing the Old Gardener, gave a solid performance. Bass-baritone Julian Debreuil (the Gardener) produced a beautifully resonant sound – almost overpowering for the size of the venue. Georgia Mae Bishop’s mezzo impressed with its strength in the upper register, and she offset Flora McIntosh’s more musky tones for a well-balanced pairing of female voices.

Hugill’s concept and Joanna Wyld’s libretto did not shy away from addressing pertinent and provocative themes of our own times: the impact of borders, the importance of tolerance and respect… Any new musical work that tackles such issues should be welcomed.


The Gardeners will be performed at the Garden Museum, London, on 9 September 2019 following its world premiere in June. Click here to buy tickets.

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