Of the many musicians who have marked the 50th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s death this year, none has worked more vigorously than conductor Richard Hickox – the perennial champion of English music. It is an oddly apt twist of fate therefore that has rendered ENO’s production of Vaughan Williams’s opera Riders to the Sea – initially intended as a tribute to the composer – a tribute equally to the life and work of Hickox himself, who died suddenly a mere four days before he was due to conduct the opening night.

With its paired themes of death and rebirth, fatalism and transcendence, a more fitting piece would be hard to find, but lest its content be overwhelmed by context, it should be emphasised just what an unusual work it is: a one-act tragedy whose miniature proportions (Riders is a fleeting 40 minutes in length) manage to encompass an epic emotional and dramatic scope. In a new multimedia staging directed by Fiona Shaw, the result is an astonishingly vivid and poignant work that somehow manages to overcome all the awkwardly unfashionable conventions associated with operatic tragedy.

Adapting J. M. Synge’s play of the same name, Riders is the tale of Maurya – a woman who has lost husband, father and five sons to drowning, the last discovered only as the play opens. Overcome by premonitions she begs her remaining son Bartley not to attempt the sea-crossing to Galway, but he refuses, leaving her alone with her two daughters. When news arrives of his death Maurya is finally able to make peace with her fate, and accept her own death.

With its three central soprano roles and orchestral scoring dominated by high strings and woodwind, Riders is a study in both textural and dramatic innovation – a response to the tradition of male-dominated tragedies that addresses (and answers) the question of what happens to the women left behind.

Patrician Bardon, fresh from her triumph in Partenope, provided the agonising core of the drama as Maurya, bringing her astonishing dramatic conviction and vocal command to the difficult role, supported ably by the well-matched voices of Claire Booth and Kate Valentine (PICTURED) as her daughters.

The true (anti)hero of the work however is Nature – the only force of agency in the work, and one that in Dorothy Cross and Tom Pye’s set takes on an agressive dominance, permeating the entire space and rendering its human inhabitants mere squatters in its inhospitable territory.

In this bleak and challenging vision, Fiona Shaw and ENO have created a genuinely fitting tribute to Vaughan Williams, whose insights into our national identity began and ended with landscape, going so much deeper than the benign chocolate-box pastoralism with which he is so often associated.