‘Rocking Horse’ Is Thrilling Winner At Opera Saratoga

Christine Suits is the money-hungry Ava, and Tyler Nelson her winner-picking son, Paul, in Gareth Williams’ ‘Rocking Horse Winner,’ the second half of an Opera Saratoga double bill. (Photos by Gary David Gold)
By Xenia Hanusiak

SARATOGA, N.Y. – A white muslin tent sits in the middle of a drawing room. It is one part of the set in the opening of Irish composer Gareth Williams’ chamber opera Rocking Horse Winner. One by one, indistinct cardboard shapes appear from within the makeshift, torch-lit pavilion. It is soon discernible that these figures are horses. Manipulated as puppets (by singers) in improvised, unregimented rhythms, the cardboard horses magically begin to form a circle that reminds you of a carousel.

As the horses move up and down, single voices sing hushed fragments of melody and then join in a freely composed chorus. At various points, the frail voices connect with each other and disconnect. Slowly and again in stealthy steps, a violin joins the eerie musical and visual landscape. Then, with further sporadic hints of melody provided by the remaining members of a string quintet, all voices link in sequences that resembles an overture. But unlike a conventional overture, and as if in mid-sentence, the music suddenly ceases.

Tyler Nelson is Paul in ‘Rocking Horse Winner,’ loosely based on a D.H. Lawrence story.

What followed this beautiful and disturbing prologue in the American premiere of the adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s short story, on June 30 – opening-night of Opera Saratoga’s 2018 Summer Festival – was an experience that left one transfixed and astonished long after the final note had sounded.

Williams and Canadian librettist Anna Chatterton have taken a liberal approach to Lawrence’s 1926 short story, first published by Harper’s Bazaar and made into a full-length film in 1949 directed by Anthony Pelissier. Lawrence’s story concentrates on the emotional journey of Ava (Christine Suits), who is disillusioned by her financial circumstances. The opera focuses on Ava’s relationship with her son Paul (the impressive Tyler Nelson). Although it is not explicit, we sense that Paul, who “has always been a difficult one,” has not fully developed into an adult and lies somewhere on the autism spectrum. As Ava’s desperate attachment to materialism intensifies, Paul responds with an equally but sadly tragic obsession “to make her happy.”

‘Rocking Horse Winner’ cast: Sean Galligan, Tyler Nelson, Scott Quinn, Christine Suits.

Paul’s development of certain unexplained psychic powers allows him to predict the winners of horse races. His psychic gifts are symbolized by his compulsive attachment to his wooden rocking horse, whose rhythm becomes a painful, throbbing ostinato. Further, he has an inexplicable belief that the house is whispering. “There must be more money” becomes one of the opera’s constant refrains.

Chatterton and Williams illustrate the haunting voices of the house with a small chorus. Draped in various costumes of white, the mixed-voice quartet intersperses moral messages and predictions. The tale ends in ironic tragedy.

Williams is a natural opera composer. With a harmonic palette that is tonal and moderate, he solicits an extensive, inventive, and dramatic array of vocal lines and instrumentation for string quintet and piano that propel the drama, its emotional landscape, and each character’s journey.

Mama Ava (Christine Suits) must have more money in ‘Rocking Horse Winner.’

Chatterton’s libretto is neither poetic nor lyrical. It borders on colloquial and perfunctory, yet Williams’ score responds at every point with unexpected, sensitive, and original word settings. There is a Britten-esque quality to Williams’ supernatural and mystical evocations, and despite some missed opportunities in character and motivic development, the opera is a gripping and provocative experience.

The nuanced beauty of Nelson’s tenor and his emotional commitment to the character of Paul are a significant achievement and a major factor in the production’s success. While intense and vocally charismatic, Suits has less opportunity to expand her dramatic journey or to display her considerable vocal wares.

Making his directorial debut at Opera Saratoga, Michael Hidetoshi Mori — who also directed the work’s world premiere in 2016 at Tapestry Opera, where he is general director — demonstrated commanding versatility for poetic mysticism in Rocking Horse Winner and for comedy in the David T. LittleRoyce Vavrek opera Vinkensport, which opened the highly satisfying double bill.

Megan Pachecano is a finch fancier in ‘Vinkensport.’

Opera Saratoga’s commission of this new chamber version of Vinkensport or The Finch Operafirst performed in 2010 by the Bard Conservatory of Music — is an opportunity to appreciate the lighter comedic style of the industrious Little-Vavrek team.

The Flemish sport of Vinkensport — vinken is Dutch for finches — began in the 1500s. The competition, which still runs today, is based on how many “susk-e-wiets” tweets a finch can deliver in an hour. Vavrek was inspired to write an original story for his libretto on the bizarre 400-year-old bird-call competition after reading an article in the New York Times.

The result is a series of monologues (arias) delivered by the finch trainers. Their birds, with suitably suggestive names (Farinelli, Hans Sachs, Holy Saint Francis, Prince Gabriel III of Belgium, Sir Elton John, and Atticus Finch) give insights into the zany world of finching and hints at the opera’s playful opportunities.

The aria-driven opera is a set of character portraits offering behind-the-scenes glimpses of the various, precarious, and hidden lives of the trainers. The characters include a lonely jilted wife, a “finching” cheat who tries to use recordings to win the competition, the alcoholic wife of the director, and a zealous finch trainer who eventually sets his bird free in order to gain his own emotional freedom.

Quinn Bernegger is one of the Opera Saratoga Young Artists in ‘Vinkensport.’

The 40-minute opera, with an octet of musicians drawn from the Opera Saratoga Orchestra, is bold, robust, and direct. Little’s re-orchestration (string quintet, clarinet/bass clarinet, flute/piccolo, and piano) retains much of the busy energy of the full orchestra version. Vinkensport succeeds because Little and Vavrek offer a modern and vernacular language, and the design team of Cameron Anderson (set) and Valérie Thérèse Bart (costumes) reflect Opera Saratoga’s mission to connect with contemporary audiences.

The vocally noteworthy cast, members of Opera Saratoga’s Young Artist Program, are actor-singers well prepared by company’s music staff.

Remaining performances of the double bill are July 6 and 13. For information, go here.

Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based writer, festival director, and scholar whose writing has appeared in London’s Financial Times, Music and Literature, National Sawdust’s Log Journal and the New York Times. She is an advocate for contemporary music and cultural diplomacy. www.xeniahanusiak.com


  1. I was in the audience for this as well and it is a night I will never forget, especially when the audience sat there in silence for what seemed an eternity. Thank you Xenia for your thorough write up of these marvelous works. Too often there are reviews that lack the insight or vocabulary to accurately reflect the experience of a work and the mood of the audience. We are left with quotes like “The Giovanni seemed to be having a good time.” Yours was a welcome retreat from that.

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