Substantially better than Nothing!

28 Feb

“What are you seeing tonight?” my partner asked.

“Nothing.” I replied.  I imagine the joke has been made quite a good deal about Glyndebourne’s new community opera, Nothing, by David Bruce and Glyn Maxwell, which I saw at its last performance on 27th February.

The opera’s based on a novel by Janne Teller.  It’s a disturbing, compelling, Lord of the Flies – like tale.  Pierre, a schoolboy, decides that nothing is worth doing.  He sits in a plum tree and his class mates try to show him that things do matter.  It begins with them giving up things that matter to them and ends up with them being forced to get more extreme – it ends horribly.

I haven’t read the book, but the opera charts a pretty gripping story moving from innocence to pretty bitter experience.  It’s about group dynamics, about manipulation and what matters.  Glyn Maxwell’s libretto is taut and sings clearly.  David Bruce has problems setting school slang, but otherwise makes the words sound natural: they sound good.  His soundworld – a conventional orchestra, with harpsichord – is not difficult.  A bit of minimalism, a bit of Britten and Sondheim and some 18th century techniques.  He makes the duets for Pierre and Agnes (the girl who tries to help him) compelling.  His writing for chorus is terrifying.  I felt I’d like to hear it again and, certainly, hear more of his work.

There are five beefy vocal parts which were cast with young professionals.  Four smaller parts for promising teenagers and a large chorus of local school children – at a guess from six forms.  The Southbank Sinfonia is augmented by local young musicians.  It’s been splendidly prepared.

As Pierre, Stuart Jackson confirmed what a promising singer he is.  He sang clearly, menacingly, manipulatively.  He sounds as though he’ll be an outstanding Britten interpreter.  He caught the sense of mental illness, unhappiness and manipulativeness about the role.  As Johan, James Hall, a counter tenor, sounded strong and confident and conveyed the blind thoughtlessness of the young man who thinks he’s a leader.  Trantan Hambleton was suitably sour Karl.  Both women – Marta Fontanale Simmons and Robyn Allegra Parton were committed and moving and sang beautifully.  All fitted in very well as convincing teenagers.

The large chorus, onstage for most of the time was committed, well=prepared and sang clearly, strongly and well.  This didn’t strike me as easy music.  Sian Edwards conducted – good to see her again – with her customary energy and precision.

Bijan Sheibani directed in a simple, revolving set by Giles Cadle.  It looked good.  The cast moved as a single unit, working together with outstanding energy.

This was a lot more than a worthy experiment a community opera.  This was a powerful evening that held a full house engrossed.  This wasn’t your usual Glyndebourne audience: I suspect there were a number of first timers there.  I think that, if it had been mind, I’d have become hooked on opera: it told a compelling story, with a directness and vigour that carried you along.  It’s an outstanding evening.

The shame is that this was only on for four performances and that it’s not the sort of piece that is readily transferable.  I’d go again.



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