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Reviews

27 Feb 2019

Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child: an ROH world premiere

The Royal Opera House’s choice of work for the first new production in the splendidly redesigned Linbury Theatre - not unreasonably, it seems to have lost ‘Studio’ from its name - is, perhaps, a declaration of intent; it may certainly be received as such. Not only is it a new work; it is billed specifically as ‘our first opera for teenage audiences’.

The Monstrous Child, by Gavin Higgins: a world premiere at the Linbury Theatre, ROH

A review by Mark Berry

Above: The Monstrous Child

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey

 

Following somewhat in the line of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Coraline - last year’s premiere for children - Gavin Higgins’s The Wondrous Child, to another libretto by a children’s author, this time Francesca Simons, seems to me to have a good chance of prospering not only in that specific role, but also more generally. It is certainly a successful first opera - from the Linbury, from Higgins, from Simons, and indeed from the production team and performers, without which any single effort would likely come to naught. Opera, we were reminded, is above all a company effort - which should, of course, include the audience too. Let us hope, then, that plenty of teenagers were among those who were able to secure tickets before the run sold out; and/or that further tickets will be released, as often happens in practice.

Many - though perhaps not so many of us on the first night - will doubtless come to the opera through Simons’s book ‘of the same name’, as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore might have had it. Not that there is anything of ‘Little Miss Britten’ here; for not only is the plot drawn from Norse mythology, from the myth of Hel, goddess of the dead; the libretto is distinctly on the Anglo-Saxon and perhaps even the Norse roots of the English language. Had his English been better, Wagner might have lauded the lack of Latinism. The immediacy, not to mention the ‘earthiness’ of some of the vocabulary make particular sense in a primaeval realm - and will surely appeal to teenagers of all ages in the audience too. To a certain extent, staging and score work with that, performances perhaps still more so; they also recall (to us), however, consciously or otherwise, that we are no more Anglo-Saxons than we are Norse gods. The false immediacy of which Wagner could occasionally - very occasionally - prove guilty in theoretical, though never dramatic, writing stands always in need of puncturing in our modern condition. That is not a value judgement, simply an observation.

Hel Puppet.pngHel Puppet. Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Simons knows that as well as Higgins, as well as by director, Timothy Sheader and his team. And so, we are reminded by the puppetry in the first half of the staging, actors and singers lightly detached - this is not The Mask of Orpheus, nor does it try to be! - from their characters in some cases, as well as by Hel’s narration of that first part, the later character recounting the deeds of the child-puppet her, that even in - particularly in - a drama dealing with (supposedly) eternal gods, time plays a mediating role. Again, Wagner of all musical dramatists could have told us that - and does. Higgins offers much in the way of readily associative and memorable leitmotifs in his score, as well as plenty of ‘atmosphere’ and ‘action’, after a fashion that would surely make sense to teenagers - and others - accustomed to the ways of film scores, without ever sounding ‘like’ film music. Video and electronic sound help us shift between locations, for instance from the gods realm in the skies to the place of Hel’s banishment, from which she will bring about the end of the gods’ rule.

Leaving aside the (understandable) exaggeration about what opera ‘is’, for it can be any number of things, one knows what Simons means when she writes in the programme: ‘It took me a while to understand how different writing a libretto is to writing a novel. Opera is much more direct: people say what they think - repeatedly. Opera is so heightened, it really is the perfect way to express the emotion and epic sweep of myths about gods and giants, love and hate, as well as a young girl’s journey towards creating her own life.’ To my mind - and increasingly on reflection - Simons and Higgins achieve this with great success here. Pacing is different too; the analogy Simons draws with a picture book - ‘the words need to allow space for the illustrations’ - is interesting. Again, one senses a true collaboration: between librettist and composer, of course, but also with the production team and performers.

Higgins 2.jpg Graeme Broadbent as Odin and Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Hel. Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons gave a fine performance as Hel: half goddess, half corpse. Never sentimental - she does not want mere pity - she involved us in her plight, her hopes, her decision through sheer force and variety of vocal personality. Rosie Aldridge and Tom Randle impressed and (not a little) repelled as her parents: those who cursed her and ultimately the world by bringing her into it. Lucy Schaufer proved typically compassionate as the giantess Modgud, keeper of the bridge to Niflheim and the dead. Odin, king of the gods, received a sharply observed performance from Graeme Broadbent, taking us plausibly from hauteur to downfall. Dan Shelvey’s Baldr, as carefree and compassionate in tone as the lovelorn Hel thought him, offered a performance both delightful and moving. The Aurora Orchestra under Jessica Cottis could hardly have offered surer advocacy in the pit.

Mark Berry

Hel: Marta Fontanals-Simmons; Angrboda: Rosie Aldridge; Loki: Tom Randle; Modgud: Lucy Schaufer; Baldr: Dan Shelvey; Odin: Graeme Broadbent; Nanna, Thora: Elizabeth Karani; Actors and Puppeteers: Laura Caldow, Stuart Angell. Director: Timothy Sheader; Designer: Paul Wills; Lighting: Howard Hudson; Video: Ian William Galloway; Movement: Josie Daxter. Sound Intermedia/Aurora Orchestra/Jessica Cottis (conductor).

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, Thursday 21 February 2019.

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