What does it take to write a children’s opera? Clarity, accessibility, an open-hearted story with a touch of danger (happily resolved) are all a good start; and you find them, mostly, in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new Coraline, which the Royal Opera has just premiered offsite at the Barbican. Advertised as “accessible to all ages”, the libretto is based on a Neil Gaiman tale for young readers about an 11-year-old girl who finds a secret door into a parallel world: initially attractive, ultimately sinister, replete with lessons about life. It’s Lewis Carroll for our own times. And the story comes through loud and clear in a sharp staging by Aletta Collins, cleverly designed, with strong performances – especially from Mary Bevan in the title role, playing an 11-year-old with surprising credibility.
The only problem is a score that’s Turnage-lite, revisiting the sound-worlds of his previous operas but without their brutal energy. Blandly straightforward vocal writing camouflages pointless complications in the orchestra. And my guess is that while children will enjoy the piece as drama, the music will mean nothing to them. A lost opportunity.
Kraków in southern Poland is a city that feels more Catholic than the Vatican; and over Easter, the entire population seemed to be on their knees in church. But when they weren’t at Mass they were at Misteria Paschalia, a festival of period performance focused this time round on British works and artists. The programme was curated by John Butt, the exuberant conductor/scholar who was in residence with his Edinburgh-based Dunedin Consort. And the key event was a Butt-directed account of Handel’s Samson: an oratorio that once rivalled Messiah in popularity, though it tends to be remembered these days only for hit numbers like Let the Bright Seraphim.
Exquisitely performed by the Dunedin players, who are easily the foremost period band in Scotland, it had a pleasing line-up of soloists led by the rising young tenor James Way – who didn’t quite have the physique for Samson but sang well and, thanks to Handel’s librettist, didn’t have to reduce palaces to rubble before our eyes. It’s a peculiarity of Samson that nothing happens through most of the piece, and when the key moment of drama finally arrives … it’s reported rather than experienced.
The most moving thing I heard in Kraków, though, was a programme of Purcell given by Les Cris de Paris, a French band whose approach to English music was engagingly dissimilar to the way the English do it: technically less polished but with heartfelt sensitivity. There was a time when nobody in France thought our composers worthwhile. It’s a joy to know that things have changed.
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