Saturday 14 April 2018

Coraline at the Barbican, or, Left Mostly Unmoved

Note: This is a review of the evening performance on Saturday 7th April 2018.

With the exception of a recording by Gerald Finley of an aria from The Silver Tassie, I've not got on with Mark-Anthony Turnage's operas in the past. I saw productions of Greek (Music Theatre Wales at the Linbury) and Anna Nicole (Royal Opera), and in neither case did they make me want to rush to hear the work a second time. On the other hand I enjoyed the film of Coraline, I'm generally a fan of Neil Gaiman's work and of fairy tales, so I hoped in advance to enjoy this adaptation. There is much to commend in the strong performances and the well crafted staging, but for me the work itself is problematic.

The ensemble of singing actors and actresses is excellent. Diction is really outstanding and the absence of subtitles is not a problem, though parts of the libretto might have benefitted from being more obscured. Mary Bevan in the title role sings with impressive power, and throws herself fully into the part - on this showing it seems to me fundamentally very challenging for an adult to fully convince as an 11 year old child while singing operatic fashion, and the fact that for me Bevan wasn't wholly convincing in this regard should not detract from the overall high quality of her performance. Kitty Whately as Mother/Other Mother shows fine versatility and I should not have known she was recovering from laryngitis without the pre-show announcement.

In the pit Sian Edwards draws spirited playing from the Britten Sinfonia. Ever since I heard her conduct Khovanshchina at ENO I've thought Edwards has that sense of drama that great opera conducting needs, she tries to conjure it here despite the shortcomings of the work, and our bigger houses ought to be hiring her more often. One small note though, the positioning of the off-stage voices could on occasion have been improved - from where I was sitting they did not sound in Act 1 as if they were coming from behind the small door at the back of the set.

My previous encounters with director Aletta Collins have been as a choreographer, and were mixed, but here there is much to commend. Movement on stage is generally well thought through. Giles Cadle's set is straightforwardly flexible – I got particular pleasure out of trying to read the show posters in the actresses living room. Magic consultants Richard Wiseman and David Britland provide some lovely moments including the white mouse and the disembodied hand. I've seen suggestions that more gore was needed, but I don't think that's really the problem.

Rather what makes this evening finally unsatisfactory, particularly in the second half which felt long to me, are the weaknesses of both score and libretto, and the marriage of the two. When I realised that I had last encountered librettist Rory Mullarkey in his poor St George and the Dragon at the National my heart sank slightly. But the text generally comes across as singable with these two caveats – there is too much of it, and the rhymes were a mistake. I wonder if both these issues reflect styles currently in vogue which those writing new opera or music theatre work need to reconsider. The problem with too much text is there's no space to linger on the moments where the marriage of text and music can find emotional power that each alone would lack. I thought that both Barry's Importance of Being Earnest and Wigglesworth's Winter's Tale also suffered from this. Was Turnage afraid to ask for cuts? Or did he, for some reason, just shy away from expressions of feeling? Whatever the explanation, the setting rarely repeats a line and as the evening wore on I felt more frequently those missed opportunities to pause, to delve into the emotional moment. To give just one example, early in the first act Whately's Mother tries to encourage her daughter about the possibilities of her new school – but as she sings about it I felt she slipped back to some painful memories of her own – but the opportunity to build a significant emotional link with the audience is lost because the word setting has to plough on. Similarly, the various stages of Coraline's emotional journey rarely really moved me because of this failure to delve. At the same time there is insufficient compensatory dramatic tension, because the overall unfolding of plot is too slow. The issue of rhyming is another problem seen in other recent new music theatre work – most notably the dire at the National. It's very difficult to rhyme effectively in lyrics, and my general advice to librettists based on recent experience is, don't try.

Turnage's music in itself is pleasant enough to listen to and I seem to recall some moments when the orchestration caught my ear particularly, though not particularly enough I'm afraid for any of them to really stick in my mind. But the music in general lacks flexibility – it doesn't for example seem to be able to rise to the demands of climatic moments – often I felt something more was needed. There's a sameness across the evening which also contributed to the fact that, for me, the second half dragged as I realised the musical style was just going to go on largely unvaried from part 1.

In sum this was a strongly performed and staged evening, but it left me largely cold emotionally, and I didn't come away wanting to hear the work again.

Housekeeping note: It was my impression that the audience probably included a good number of people who are not Royal Opera House regulars. I found it very frustrating that the House didn't seem to have made any attempt (bar one generic advert at the back of the programme for the Summer booking period) to bring to the attention of these audience members the other work on offer. Why no brochures for next season in the foyer? Or how about arranging a poster or two to advertise a work on a similar theme like Hansel and Gretel which is being staged over Christmas (or even a special ticket offer to first time Royal Opera goers at Coraline)? Or (though I was mocked for this suggestion on social media) how about projecting a few of the upcoming opera productions on the front cloth before the start – rather than the tiresomely familiar device of projecting the title of the work which we all know already. Those of us in what I suspect is a dwindling band of opera regulars should all want to try things that might entice new audiences. Instead, I was reminded of recent experiences at the Edinburgh International Festival where director Fergus Linehan has added new artistic forms to the programme and persistently makes no attempt to try and encourage audiences at those shows to experiment with something in the established opera or classical music strands. Maybe such attempts at alerting audiences to other things they might like to try would be failures, but I don't understand why organisations seem determined not even to try.

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