Tim Hochstrasser reviews the World premiere of Itch commissioned and presented by Opera Holland Park.
Opera Holland Park
Opera Holland Park Website
While in principle new operas should always be welcomed, sometimes the reality is more a duty than a pleasure to experience. No such hesitations apply to this world premiere at Opera Holland Park, and huge credit goes to James Clutton and the company for commissioning this new work for their main stage. Their confidence is wholly repaid, and this opera deserves many more chances to establish itself within the performance repertoire.
‘Itch’ is derived from the novels by Simon Mayo, adapted here in a pithy, witty, and accessible two-act libretto by Alasdair Middleton, and set to memorable, stylistically varied music by Jonathan Dove deploying chamber-scale orchestral forces. The influences of Britten, Mozart and Philip Glass are clearly discernible, but Dove puts his own stamp on the piece with a supple underscore flowing into striking arias and elaborate concerted climaxes.
The story is centred around the adventures of teenagers Itchingham Lofte (‘Itch’) and his sister Jack, and is very much seen from their perspective; though the larger issues, especially on environmental themes, are salient and important for all. Itch has an enthusiasm for collecting all 118 elements in the periodic table and gets himself into various scrapes by doing so, to the frustration of his family. While working on holiday jobs in an old tin mine he gets to know a beach drifter who has come across some possible examples of uranium. These rocks excite the interest of teachers at Itch’s school, one of whom sees a way of ingratiating himself with the local commercial monolith ‘Greencorps’. He and they sense the chance to deploy this new element in the pursuit of clean energy, despite the dangers of radiation sickness. The final sections of the drama become a thriller as these two groups seek to profit from the find while Itch and his sister aim to return it to the earth by burying all the rocks from the beach down the mine.
As this compressed summary suggests, there is a lot of action in this opera. For it to work requires very careful design and here credit really goes to director Stephen Barlow and designer Frankie Bradshaw, who have come up with a brilliantly elegant yet simple solution. All of the elements of the periodic table are represented on stage in a series of Perspex boxes organised in the customary format. Some levels protrude to create walkways on different levels that serve different functions – school laboratory, company headquarters, even the interior of a car. While the forestage around the orchestra is scattered with a rubble-like scree that does for the mine, the beach, and other natural environments. Onto and through this set lighting director Jake Wiltshire projects different colours and the symbols of the different elements, as needed. All this combines to offer up a variegated but coherent simplicity of setting in which the action is securely grounded.
Presiding from the pit is conductor Jessica Cottis, who holds the many different vocal and instrumental layers in place with stylish precision. Dove’s orchestration is, as usual, carefully weighted to fit with the singers, but there is much to coordinate if all the colours and lines are to shine through, and this she achieves with aplomb. The players of the City of London Sinfonia too acquit themselves with panache, with each player offering up important solo moments in the course of the evening.
The cast have to work hard, with some doubling more than one part. In the title role Adam Temple-Smith both looks and acts the right age while still projecting more than enough tenor heft to carry this huge part across vast tracts of text and music. The physical demands are tough too, including having to sing the final ten minutes partially submerged in a flooded mine shaft. Much of his career has been in Germany to date, and after this role hopefully we shall see more of him in this country.
He is ably supported by Natasha Agarwal, building on earlier roles at Opera Holland Park. She offers a feisty, insubordinate characterisation that chimes excellently with her brother’s initially more hesitant attitudes. Another stand-out performance comes from Rebecca Bottone, who plays both their mother and the boss of Greencorps, Roshanna Wing. The latter role is garlanded with some stratospheric coloratura writing that evokes Mozart’s Queen of the Night in both villainy and timbre. She carried this off with bravura swagger.
As a gentler contrast, Opera Holland Park regular, Victoria Simmonds, portrayed a kindly schoolteacher concerned above all about the implications for the health of the planet. Similarly, emollient and reassuring characterisation came from Eric Greene as the father, Nicholas Lofte, who offers a rousing peroration in the final minutes. But every adventure story needs a convincing baddie, and it was the familiar stalwart Nicholas Garrett who earned the ritual chorus of boos at the final curtain. His portrayal of the frustrated, embittered scientist Flowerdew offered the most detailed and fine-grained portrait in the evening.
Two further doubled-up roles completed this excellent cast – Robert Burt differentiated a trademark heavy from the idealistic mine owner, and counter-tenor James Laing was almost unrecognisable, beard and voice apart, between the drifter, Cake, and the sophisticated company enforcer, Berghahn.
Do catch this remarkable, thought-provoking piece in this crisp ensemble production while you still can. And if you cannot, then let us hope that revivals will soon be on offer elsewhere.