The Seal-Woman – Scottish Storytelling Centre

Composed by Granville Bantock

Composition and Libretto by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser

Directed by David Douglas

Musical Direction by Hebba Benyaghla

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In the brisk winds of an uninhabited islet in the Western Isles, a Cailleach, Scot’s crone, croons into the emptiness of the world – singing of local legend, that of the seals which transform into mortal women upon the land: A selkie.

A creature of Nordic and Celtic folk, legends tell of these ‘seal folk’ who possess the ability to shed their luxurious furs when on land, venturing into the mortal realms. Unfortunately, as is common for this genre of the tale, when a mortal man takes an interest in these denizens of the deep, they often take their discarded skins – entrapping the seal folk, often as spouses. The Seal-Woman, performed as a part of the Edinburgh Tradfest takes a more accessible angle to the tale, incorporating additional elements.

A composite piece of various folklore legends in the Western Isles, Granville Bantock and Marjory Kennedy-Fraser’s Gaelic-folk Opera conjures a variety of Scottish favourites to craft an accessible Operatic for all: featuring An Eriskay Love LiltSea Sounds and The Seal-Woman’s Sea Joy. But the core narrative follows the same beats as the folklore piece: of an islander stumbling upon the Selkie’s skin as they bask in the land’s glory, taking it for themselves to claim her beauty and hand in marriage. Years later, they have a child together, but the call of the waves is too powerful for the Selkie to remain on land forever.

With former Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Sioned Gwen Davies taking the lead role as the Seal-Woman with diligence and dexterity to their performance and vocals, Scots Opera Project is in safe hands for their titular role – but also boasts a superb ensemble who bring this operatic to life. She and Colleen Nicoll, portraying the Seal-Woman’s sister, capture the freeing presence of the Scottish coast, open and authoritative in their vocals but never straying too far from the supernatural – always just on the tip of their performance. Utilising the entire stage, including the audience seating areas, Nicoll and Gwen Davies often ripple a hauntingly beautiful melody of Gaelic through the crowds. If anything, Kennedy-Fraser’s libretto would have benefitted more from the infusion of Gaelic lyrics to heighten the sense of mysticism, and crucially, to demonstrate the detachment most audiences now have with the language of their ancestors.

Their pitches make for the perfect balance to the Isleman and the Fisherman, performed with a more expectant masculine gusto from director Douglas and Michael Longden. Douglas’s character is far less violent than some incarnations of the tale, and tremendous efforts are made to instil a mortal presence to the show, with Douglas, Longden and the Cailleach (Ulrike Wytscher) having significant roles and solo performances through the show. Longden possesses a more playful, bouncing octave which makes for brief playful shanties and a powerful cameo solo as a Kelpie, stilling the air with a brief, but impressive presence.

A spectre upon the stage, detached from the narrative proceedings, but equally as vitally – perhaps more so than the myth and legend unfolding is the live piano performance from Musical Director Hebba Benyaghla. Capturing Bantock’s composition, The Seal-Woman is equally as beautiful as an instrumental production as it is vocally, Benyaghla’s weaving of pain, love (familial and romantic) and ability to capture both the stillness of the water and its raw power is enrapturing. It serves as a compliment to the libretto, but never allows itself to be lost in vocal – the melody of the performance carried long into the night.

Limited by a stage size, the physicality sadly cannot match the strength of the vocals – even utilising the wings and additional doorways of the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s Netherbow Theatre. But the intimacy of the show enables an appreciation of the facial expression, and the aethereal lulling from behind the audience is a mesmeric, even chilling addition from director David Douglas. There’s a sense the cast recognises this, as they do their most to flitter around the stage and inject a sense of character into their movements, but it does demonstrate both the drawback of the setting, piano and three-four performers on the stage. But more, it tantalises how wonderful Douglas’ production has the potential to be on a grander scale.

A near century after its composition, this Gaelic Opera finds new life in a contemporary cast, who manifest both wave and myth upon the Netherbow stage. Any issues with the production exist in the original libretto itself, and the choice to deviate from the more harrowing roots of the tale’s more grisly aspects. But the Scots Opera Project have managed to bring a new audience into the world of Opera, and further cement a Scottish standing within the medium. An archaic legend, garbed in a beautifully composed operatic, brought to life by a talented project means The Seal-Woman deserves a place in Scottish culture for its preservation of tradition, merged with a contemporary sound.

Preservation of Tradition

The Seal-Woman was performed at The Scottish Storytelling Centre on May 1st.
Runs for two hours and twenty minutes with one interval. The Seal-Woman will be performed at the Perth Festival of Arts from May 21st – 22nd. Tickets begin from £20.00 (Con available) and may be obtained here.


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