Giselle, with Osipova and Vasiliev, Mikhailovsky Ballet, London Coliseum, March 2013

27 March, 2013

What a pleasure this was. I’ve not seen the Mikhailovsky Giselle before, but it’s a fine production created in 2007 by Nikita Dolgushin, with excellent designs by Vyacheslav Okunev well lit by Mikhail Mekler. And the orchestra under Valery Ovsyanikov played with huge spirit, giving a performance far better than some of his work with the Royal Ballet. The dancing on the first night was led by Osipova and Vasiliev, who were both lured away from the Bolshoi in December 2011.

© Mikhailovsky Theatre

© Mikhailovsky Theatre

Natalia Osipova as Giselle was extraordinary. Her control, her wonderful jumps with gentle unhurried beats, and above all her musicality. Every tiny movement of her body showed how she felt the music. Of course, this is how it should be, but it so rarely is and even with some of the most brilliant dancers the music may be nothing but background. Here it is the essence. Yet it should not be supposed that Ms. Osipova is merely a very musical dancer with perfect technique — she is an actress, and her death in Act I following her shock that her lover is the Count, already betrothed to another, was heartbreaking.

As the Count himself, Ivan Vasiliev also showed fine dramatic talent, so sure of himself at first, yet horribly uncertain when the Gamekeeper, who adores Giselle, summons the hunting party to unmask him. In his powerful Act II solo, as fine fortissimos from the Russian orchestral brass demanded he dance to death, he showed himself to be almost exhausted before dawn rose at stage rear and the wilis power faded. The two of them together showed her to be a mere wisp, floating in the air as he moved on the ground, and her ability to float already showed itself with her solo dancing in Act I.

The other dancers gave fine support to these two principals, with good ensemble work from the corps in Act II, and full engagement by all dancers with the action in Act I. Ekaterina Borchenko as Queen of the Wilis in Act II performed fine jetés, and her borrées as she glided around the stage were a delight. Vladimir Tsal as the Gamekeeper was wonderful in his mime and his forceful interaction with the Count, and Anna Novosyolova as a rather young looking mother of Giselle showed grief at the end of Act I reminiscent of a Lady Capulet. And in the Act I peasant pas-de-deux, Sabina Yapparova showed glorious control and her musical dancing was a delight.

Altogether a terrific performance, and though you may not get the same two principals, this is a lovely production. Beautiful costumes, and the sets give a feeling of a world beyond, with a winding road to the castle in Act I, and a moonlit stream in Act II. The performance itself shows attention to detail that seems to have been lacking in some London shows by big Russian ballet companies in recent years. A great success for the Mikhailovsky ballet.

Performances of Giselle continue until March 29, followed by Don Quixote and other productions until April 7 — for details click here.

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Peter and Alice, Noël Coward Theatre, March 2013

25 March, 2013

Imagine yourself, as a child, the subject of a book — the protagonist in a series of whimsical adventures that happen around you. How would it affect your future life? Being true to yourself and dispensing with the image formed by millions of readers may be hard. And does it make any difference whether you’re a girl or a boy? In this play there is one of each, the Peter of Peter Pan and the Alice of Alice in Wonderland.

— check back later for images, when available —

They are quite different. Peter Llewelyn Davies and his four brothers were informally adopted by J M Barrie after their father’s death, and Barrie publicly indentified him as ‘the original Peter Pan’. By contrast, Alice Liddell, daughter of scholar Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford, was only twice in her life alone in the company of Rev Charles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll) who wrote the Alice books. At least that is what she says in this new play by Peter Logan.

The play refers to a break between Charles Dodgson and the Liddell family in June 1863 when Alice was 11, and associates this to Alice’s feeling uncomfortable in Dodgson’s company once when he took a photograph of her (he was a keen amateur photographer). But the central truth in this drama is a meeting between Peter and Alice that took place at Columbia University in America on the centenary of Dodgson’s birth in 1932 when Alice was 80. It was the first time that Peter Llewelyn Davies, aged 35, had met the widow Mrs. Alice Liddell Hargreaves, and Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench brought their characters very much to life.

As they talk, the young Alice and the young Peter join them, along with J M Barrie and Charles Dodgson, brilliantly played by Nicholas Farrell. Judi Dench brings out razor-sharp responses from Alice, as if she were one of the queens in Through the Looking Glass, overwhelming Peter with her intelligence and insight. As present meets past we see the proposal from her future husband Reginald Hargreaves, nervous that a girl from her intellectual background will simply dismiss him.

When the meeting between Peter and Alice took place, the First World War was over, and the world they grew up in was gone. We hear of Peter’s searing experience in that war, and at the end of the play we find out he committed suicide by jumping in front of an Underground train at Sloane Square in 1960. By contrast, Alice died peacefully two years after this meeting.

Good set and costume designs by Christopher Oram, and lighting by Paule Constable, served this Michael Grandage production very well. Fine acting — and I went for the actors — but I found its 90 minutes insufficiently compelling.

Performances continue until June 1 — for details click here.

Aladdin, Birmingham Royal Ballet, BRB, London Coliseum, March 2013

22 March, 2013

While Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland plays at Covent Garden, the Birmingham Royal Ballet brings David Bintley’s new Aladdin to the London Coliseum. The former is sold out, and the latter deserves to be too, because both are equally great fun though entirely different.

Djinn and Magician, all images ©BRB/ Bill Cooper

Djinn and Magician, all images ©BRB/ Bill Cooper

Aladdin is a ripping yarn based on those Tales of the Arabian Nights, and its luminous story-telling, with a big pas-de-deux for Aladdin and the Princess in each of the three acts, allows more space for classical dancing than Alice. It all starts in the market place, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, and the multiple dances of Act I recalled the second act of Nutcracker. Aladdin’s dispatch of the magician in Act III reminded me of the Tsarevich and Kashchei in Firebird, and these allusions point to the fact that this array of classical dancing is a feast for the eyes.

A Chinese dragon

A Chinese dragon

Excellent sets by Dick Bird, and the costumes by Sue Blane are lovely — Persian and Ottoman concepts with a splash of Far Eastern magic, perhaps suiting the fact that this ballet was first produced in Japan. With that audience in mind, Bintley relied more on his choreography than on big acting performances, and the whole thing is a wonderfully exuberant show of dance. Mark Jonathan’s lighting helps draw out the magic, and the costume and make-up for the magician made him look like an ancient Sumerian god, which if intentional is a very clever touch.

3.Aladdin - Tzu-Chao Chou as the Djinn - Bill CooperThe whole company danced with great élan, and Jamie Bond and Jenna Roberts made a delightful couple as Aladdin and the Princess, dancing a thrillingly joyful pas-de-deux in Act II. Tzu-Chao Chou was a remarkably airborne Djinn of the Lamp, and his Act II leap above the heads of four men who then hold him up high in a sitting position was a wonder to be seen. Iain Mackay as the magician showed marvellous stage presence with his gliding movements, and Marion Tait as Aladdin’s mother was as ever a musical delight.

The music itself by Carl Davis creates a magical atmosphere already in the overture, and this is a case where choreography and music were created to complement one another. There is not a dull moment, and the orchestra played beautifully under the baton of Philip Davis.

With four more performances in London, two of them matinees, this is a must-see. Do not be put off by associating this to a well known pantomime of the same name. Yes, there is a magic carpet and they float back home after escaping from the magician’s lair, but this is classical ballet with a swing in its step. Performances at the London Coliseum continue until March 24 — for details click here.

Tosca with Opolais, Lee and Volle, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, 20 March 2013

21 March, 2013

In this new cast, Kristine Opolais and Yonghoon Lee complemented Michael Volle, who has sung Scarpia all this month at Covent Garden. From my previous experience of him in other bass-baritone roles (from Salome to Aida) he more than lived up to expectations, but it was Yonghoon Lee as Cavaradossi who was the new find of the evening.

All images ©ROH/ Tristram Kenton

The Act I set, all images ©ROH/ Tristram Kenton

From his Recondita armonia in Act I to his final moments in Act III this man was a revelation. His passion for Tosca was palpable, and after his glorious E lucevan le stelle in Act III, which he started very quietly and gently, he grasped at her when she appears with the safe conduct. Unlike the usual plump tenors, Yonghoon Lee is admirably slim, and he used his body to great effect. His Vittoria in Act II was the outburst of a committed young artist, his whole body showing passionate commitment, and emphasising the brutal mendacity of a police chief in the dying days of a lost regime. Then in the late moments of Act III standing with his back to the audience while the soldiers fire, he crumpled, his life blown away like the flame of a candle.

Scarpia in Act II

Scarpia in Act II

As Scarpia the police chief, Michael Volle’s characterisation and voice came over with huge power. From the dramatic sweep of his entrance in Act I to his grasp of a prize that eludes him and suddenly kills him in Act II, this was a great performance. Standing on the lower level near the Attavanti chapel in Act I you can see him thinking, and as the act closes his determination against the forces of the orchestra below, and of God on the upper level, came through with a certainty of success. Then in Act II as he moves into Ha più forte, expressing his relish for a violent conquest rather than soft surrender, we witness the dark forces impelling this man to destroy the individual liberty. When Kristine Opolais as Tosca kills him she does so with despatch, and her anxiety for the safe conduct and placing of the candles was beautifully done. She acted the entire role with great conviction, but vocally seemed not yet ideally suited to the heady drama of Tosca.

Among smaller roles, Jeremy White made a fine Sacristan, and among small matters of production, the slow steps of the firing squad in perfect time to the music, and Spoletta’s putting an arm out to stop the captain of the guard delivering a finishing shot, show great care for detail by revival director Andrew Sinclair.

This whole performance was a treat, but what really raised its level, apart from the singers, was Maurizio Benini in the orchestra pit. His conducting of Puccini’s wonderful score generated huge emotion, with gloriously powerful sounds from the orchestra at moments such as the point in Act I just before Tosca’s exit, and in Act II when Tosca finally realises what is going on in the other room, and in the crescendo as Scarpia presses her and she screams for the torture to stop.

This was a knock-out, and the vocal characterisations by Yonghoon Lee and Michael Volle are not to be missed. Unfortunately performances with this cast are sold out, but further ones with Serafin, Antonenko and Hendricks under the baton of Daniel Oren take place in July — for details click here.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with Sarah Lamb, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, March 2013

20 March, 2013

This cleverly whimsical ballet, reflecting the essence of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, provides stage magic for the whole family. You don’t need any experience of ballet to appreciate the various vignettes, including the Adagio for the Queen of Hearts and four playing cards in Act III, a wicked take on the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty. Itziar Mendizabal as the Queen played it to perfection, inspiring the audience to their biggest applause of the evening.

Dancers appear in the audience, all images ©ROH/ Johan Persson

Dancers appear in the audience, all images ©ROH/ Johan Persson

Yet the main applause must go to the pure refinement of Sarah Lamb’s Alice, who takes all the strange happenings with perfect equanimity. It all starts with a garden party, and when Lewis Carroll takes a flash photograph of her, the lighting changes dramatically, throwing the guests into an otherworldly aura, while Ricardo Cervera as Carroll opens a hole in the ground, and assuming the persona of the White Rabbit takes Alice into Wonderland. The other characters from the garden party reappear in various roles, with Federico Bonelli as Alice’s beloved Jack turning into the Knave of Hearts.

Alice and Jack

Alice and Jack

Act I is full of clever stage effects and video projections, and when Alice sticks her head through the little door to peep into the world beyond, colourful dancers suddenly appear in the audience. Act II contains one magical incident after another including the Cheshire Cat that decomposes and eventually reconstitutes itself as a single large face, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the mushroom with a Caterpillar that later scurries off stage on multiple feet en pointe, and much more. Alexander Campbell, Thomas Whitehead and James Wilkie were superb as the Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse, and Gary Avis and Kristen McNally were terrific as the Duchess and the Cook in Act I, reappearing in an aggressive pas-de-deux in Act III.

Sarah Lamb was lovely in her final pas-de-deux with Bonelli in Act III, and the Company performed with precision and vivacity. Yes, it’s all nonsense, very different from the ethereal magic of Sleeping Beauty, but Christopher Wheeldon and his designer Bob Crowley have recognised the very different magic of Lewis Carroll, and created something fun for dancers and audience alike. Joby Talbot’s music, orchestrated jointly with Christopher Austin, is full of the atmosphere of a warm summer’s day at the right moments, as well as the staccato confusion of the characters in Alice’s dream, and this co-production with the National Ballet of Canada was very well conducted by David Briskin from that company.

Performances with various casts continue until April 13, with two Saturday matinees. All are sold out, but there is a live cinema screening on March 28 — for details click here.

I Lombardi, University College Opera, Bloomsbury Theatre, March 2013

19 March, 2013

After UCOpera’s production of a Rameau work last year, which suffered from over-ambitious direction that didn’t gel, I was unsure what this year’s I Lombardi would be like. I need not have worried — it was terrific.

Giselda, image ©UCOpera

Giselda, image ©UCOpera

Suits of armour and chain mail are expensive, so director Jamie Hayes has updated it to warring gangs from the 1960s, with guns and the occasional knife. I Lombardi meets West Side Story, but it really works, and Charles Peebles produced wonderful playing from the orchestra. Early Verdi is so full of energy, and UCL have made a perfect choice for his bicentenary year. This is the opera that followed Nabucco, which starts a new run at the Royal Opera House on Easter Saturday, so here is an excellent chance to see the next collaboration between Verdi and his early librettist Temistocle Solera.

As an enthusiast for Italian unification and the Risorgimento, the story of Lombards fighting Islamic warriors formed an attractive background that would have resonated with Verdi’s audience, but the First Crusade no longer inspires us, so I applaud the change of location in time and space. The chorus members were entirely comfortable with their roles and sang with conviction, and the three pole dancers, particularly the middle one, were great fun. UCOpera uses UCL students, complemented by a sprinkling of professionals and they were lucky to have Katherine Blumenthal in the main role of Giselda.

She suffered the misfortune of serious transport disruptions, but hurtled down the motorway in a car, arriving with five minutes to spare though you wouldn’t have known it. Already in Act I her voice showed a fine characterisation of her feelings, and as the opera revolves around her it was a huge pleasure to see such a wonderful vocal portrayal of the role. Giselda is a source of affection and concern to four men: her father Arvino, his brother Pagano, crime boss Acciano and syndicate member Oronte, who is in love with her.

Pagano as hermit, image ©UCOpera

Pagano as hermit, image ©UCOpera

Among the students, Joseph Dodd sang well as Acciano, and Edward Cottell sang an excellent bass as Arvino’s right hand man Pirro. Among the professionals, Adam Smith sang strongly as Oronte, Jeff Stewart gave a lyrical rendering of Arvino’s role, and John MacKenzie was super as Pagano. His compelling stage presence was perfect for this criminal turned hermit who eventually achieves redemption.

Good set designs by Will Bowen and the clever lighting by Matthew Eagland managed to convey both fire and rain at the right moments, as well as changes of mood and location. If the production was a little tongue in cheek at times that only made it more fun, and director Jamie Hayes showed a fine sense of humour. Charles Peebles’ conducting was exemplary and the orchestra did him proud, particularly the wonderful violin solo for the party scene in Act III.

Don’t miss this glorious but rarely-performed early Verdi. There are three further performances on March 20, 22, 23 — for details click here.

Die Feen, Chelsea Opera Group, Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 2013

18 March, 2013

Wagner was 20 when he wrote this opera, and it was never performed in his lifetime. Seeing it in Fulham forty years ago I was amazed at its sophistication, and delighted with the Chelsea Opera Group’s concert performance last night.

The two main characters, Arindal and Ada have the same names as in Wagner’s first but uncompleted opera Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), yet the situation is quite different. The political union in that opera is replaced here by a love that is politically almost impossible since Arindal is a mortal prince, and Ada an immortal from the fairy world. She decides to give up her immortality, though knowing this is fraught with difficulty since the spirit world will strike at Arindal giving him ample reason to curse her. He does, and all seems lost. Yet true love triumphs, and the resulting redemption prefigures the world of Wagner’s later operas, with precognitive echoes of Tannhäuser in the music.

Conducting by Dominic Wheeler produced fine energetic playing from the orchestra, bringing this early Wagner very much to life. At one point in Act I he stopped the music to bring the soloists back into phase with the orchestra, but after that it all began to gel, with Danish tenor David Danholt singing strongly in the role of Arindal and New Zealand soprano Kirstin Sharpin singing beautifully as Ada. At the start of Act II the chorus laments the attacks of the enemy, but Elisabeth Meister as Arindal’s sister Lora chimed in strongly, and her solo expressing the brave hope of seeing her brother again drew spontaneous applause. This suddenly moved the performance to a higher level, and Ada’s big aria Weh’ mir … (Alas, the fearful hour draws nigh) confirmed it.

Excellent singing from the three male courtiers, Andrew Slater (bass), Andrew Rees (tenor) and particularly Mark Stone (baritone). Ben McAteer showed strong diction in the minor baritone role of Harald, Emma Carrington sang a lovely mezzo as one of Ada’s two fairy attendants, and Piotr Lempa was a wonderful bass in Act III as the voice of the magician Groma, and as the Fairy King who eventually bestows immortality on Arindal after he has released Ada from petrifaction.

Wagner never again had such a simple happy ending in his redemptive dramas, and discounted this early effort. But what a treat it was to hear such an excellent performance, and congratulations to Chelsea Opera Group and conductor Dominic Wheeler for putting it on.

Francesca da Rimini, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, 17 March 2013

17 March, 2013

Seeing this opera for the second time in less than three year convinced me that it fills a much-needed gap in the repertoire. Clearly the cuts in London made by Opera Holland Park in 2010 were well judged. But if you’re one of the singers or the conductor or a member of the orchestra it must be hugely enjoyable to perform.

All images MetOpera/ Marty Sohl

All images MetOpera/ Marty Sohl

Zandonai’s rich orchestration provides powerful moments, but also some tiresomely melodramatic music for action of a lighter vein. Act I was full of this, with extended passages for Francesca’s ladies in waiting. But full marks to the Met for reviving and screening Piero Faggioni’s beautifully artistic production from 1984 with its glorious costumes, nineteenth century impressionistic backdrop, and art nouveau concept of what the fourteenth century should look like. Ezio Frigerio’s sets, Franca Squarciapino’s costumes, Gil Wechsler’s lighting, and Donald Mahler’s elegantly subdued choreography all worked well, and cinema direction by Gary Halvorson was excellent.

A Rosenkavalier moment

A Rosenkavalier moment

The star role is Francesca, sung here by Eva-Maria Westbroek who remarked in the intermission that this sort of story is still going on in the world today. She is quite right. A girl is married to a man she doesn’t love, while being in love with someone else. She arranges clandestine meetings with her lover, and the family kills the two of them. Francesca is in love with the fair Paolo, whom she once believed was to be her husband. In fact it’s his malformed brother, Gianciotto, and the insane jealousy of the third brother, Maletestino brings a denouément in which Gianciotto kills both his wife Francesca and his brother Paolo.

Smaragdi and Francesca

Smaragdi and Francesca

As Paolo, Marcello Giordani evidently relished the role from a poetic point of view, according to his intermission interview, but in Act I he sounded strained on the high notes, though he warmed up considerably in Act II. Eva-Maria Westbroek as Francesca sang and acted with dramatic power, but lacked a more nuanced portrayal that might suggest character development. It was perhaps easier for Mark Delavan and Robert Brubaker as the more one-dimensional characters Gianciotto and Maletestino, and both sang with great conviction. Fine solo appearance in Act I by Philip Horst as Francesca’s scheming brother Ostasio, and Ginger Costa-Jackson sang a beautiful mezzo as Francesca’s confidante Smaragdi.

She sings of potions, and appears in Act III as a Brangaene-like character to Francesca’s Isolde, but this opera’s eclectic allusions to Tristan und Isolde, and Lancelot and Guinevere, along with the musical resonances with Strauss and Puccini, weaken it and obscure any creative focus. There were lovely moments however, such as the kiss at the end of Act III, where Francesca’s costume and body language mirrored the 1895 painting Flaming June by Frederic Leighton. Eva-Maria Westbroek sang a fine prayer in Act IV, and the sudden ending with two brothers left standing while Francesca and Paolo lie dead was a coup de theâtre.

Gianciotto, Malatestino, Paolo

Gianciotto, Malatestino, Paolo

Plenty of tension from the orchestra under Marco Armiliato, and thank you to the Met for a production so fine that I shall never feel the need to see this opera again. In the intermission features, Sondra Radvanovsky told Marcello Giordani that he had performed 27 operas at the Met, and gushingly asked if this was his favorite. He answered diplomatically, unlike a singer in a previous opera who responded less charitably to one of her questions.

The Siege of Calais, English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, March 2013

10 March, 2013

This is stirring stuff. Although Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais) with its unsatisfactory third act is rarely performed, James Conway’s production, which eliminates Act III and its happy ending, is a revelation.

Rodin: The Burghers of Calais

Rodin: The Burghers of Calais

This opera, which immediately followed Lucia di Lammermoor, deals with real historical events. In 1346, towards the start of the Hundred Years War, England’s King Edward III besieged Calais, and in 1347 the siege was still in place. The history is disputed but this opera is based on Pierre du Belloy’s patriotic 1765 play Le siège de Calais, where in order to raise the siege the king demands the city turn over seven of its leading citizens to certain death. Six volunteers, including the mayor and his son, come forth and their resolute bravery so impressed Edward’s mother Queen Isabella that she pleaded for their pardon. The king acceded and Rodin’s sculpture The Burghers of Calais, celebrating their selfless act, can be seen today in Westminster.

Aurelio in enemy territory, all images ETO/ RichardHubertSmith

Aurelio in enemy territory, all images ETO/ RichardHubertSmith

In this production the action starts during the overture with the mayor’s son Aurelio foraging for food and being temporarily captured by the enemy. Towards the end he defiantly rejects the king’s demands for the slaughter of noble hostages, but his father Eustace insists on sacrifice lest everyone die of starvation. In the absence of Act III, though two of its better numbers are included in the first two acts, we see the six burghers trudging off to their death.

Aurelio with father, wife and baby

Aurelio with father, wife and baby

After the stage calls, cheers and bravos, just as everyone was starting to leave, the orchestra suddenly struck a lighter mood with ballet music from Act III, and we all stepped out into a cold night with a warm feeling of having seen a memorable performance of this little known opera.

Designs by Samal Blak, well lit by Ace McCarron, bring the action into the twentieth century, and Jeremy Silver’s conducting brought out the life and energy of Donizetti’s score. Eddie Wade, whom I last saw as a fine Gunther in The Ring, portrayed a noble mayor, and Paula Sides sang strongly in the soprano role of Aurelio’s wife. The chorus was excellent and there were fine performances from the supporting cast, Andrew Glover in particular.

Six honourable victims

Six honourable victims

But the singer that made this a knock-out was Australian mezzo Helen Sherman as Aurelio. Before she started singing, her convincing mannerisms and body language made me think she was a man, and she gave a stunning portrayal of the role. The defiant aria in Act I, and in Act II the duet with his wife, the rejection of the enemy, and the farewell aria to his baby were riveting. Helen Sherman’s mezzo voice is world class, and a glance at her website shows she is singing a huge range of different roles — I look forward to hearing her again.

Congratulations to the ETO. This is unmissable, and if it were in London for a second night I’d go again.

Performances continue on tour at: Exeter Northcott, 22nd Mar; Norwich Theatre Royal, 27th Mar; York Theatre Royal, 13th Apr; Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 20th Apr; Buxton Opera House, 27th Apr; Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 2nd May; Warwick Arts Centre, 11th May; Perth Festival, Perth Theatre, 16th May; Cambridge Arts Theatre, 21st May — for details click here.

Written on Skin, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, March 2013

9 March, 2013

The ROH Insight Evening for this opera described it as being about sexual emancipation and jealousy with a tragic ending that they declined to specify. The emancipation angle is a good spin for modern audiences, but the story is an old one. A man treats his wife as a chattel and she experiences a sexual awakening with a younger man who works for him. This is the plot of Il Tabarro where the husband kills the lover, but here we also have a nasty epilogue.

All images ©ROH/ Stephen Cummiskey 2013

All images ©ROH/ Stephen Cummiskey 2013

The husband, or Protector as he calls himself, is a brutal man who talks about burning villages and making Jews wear yellow. He aims to protect ‘the family’, which in his constricted world is everything, and the young man is there to compose an illustrated manuscript about it. The family seems to reach back into a distant past that endowed him with the house, which he boasts is increasing in value daily. The wife is another matter. Suppressed and unable to grow, she finds an outlet in the young illustrator, and after her husband kills him he serves her his heart to eat. After she fights back, a slow motion scene at the end shows her ascending a staircase and we are told she falls to her death.

2.WRITTEN ON SKIN SC_4462 ROH HANNIGAN AS AGNES, MEHTA AS BOY, CLAYTON AS JOHN, SIMMONDS AS MARIE  (C) CUMMISKEY

The composer George Benjamin is English, but the music has a very French feel, and the opera was first produced to great acclaim at Aix-en-Provence last summer. There are resonances of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and its sultry shifting soundscapes are interspersed with moments of fierce emotion. Benjamin himself conducted the orchestra, and although the score matched the words of Martin Crimp’s libretto it all seemed a bit pretentious with the characters, particularly the husband, singing as narrators in their own story.

Final moments

Final moments

Katie Mitchell’s production did very well to combine a distant past with the present day, the trees growing out of the parquet floor on the lower right suggesting the passing of centuries, while the black clad figures moving in slow motion in the upper left give a connection to the modern forensic world that studies past events. This was all realised in Vicki Mortimer’s excellent doll’s house design, very well lit by Jon Clark.

The singing was outstanding, and Christopher Purves managed to make the husband a more nuanced character than the libretto suggests. Both he and Barbara Hannigan as his wife Agnès came over with huge conviction, and Bejun Mehta sang a fine counter-tenor as the young man.

The problem with this first full scale opera by George Benjamin is its over-layering of meaning, with angels, and black-clad figures moving in slow motion. The effect is very clever, but insufficiently compelling, and the static intellectuality of this 95 minute work suffers by comparison with some other new operas I have seen in recent years at the ENO and the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio.

There will be a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of this opera on June 22, and four further performances on March 11, 16, 18, 22 — for details click here.