Arcana at the opera: Coraline @ Barbican Theatre

Mark-Anthony Turnage Coraline

Opera in Two Acts – Music by Mark-Anthony Turnage; Libretto by Rory Mullarkey, after the novella by Neil Gaiman; Sung in English (no surtitles)

Barbican Theatre, London

Thursday 29th March, 2018

Review by Richard Whitehouse

Coraline – Mary Bevan (soprano); Mother/Other Mother – Kitty Whatley (mezzo-soprano); Father/Other Father – Alexander Robin Baker (baritone); Miss Spink/First Ghost Child – Gillian Keith (soprano); Miss Forcible – Francis McCafferty (mezzo-soprano); Mr Bobo/Second Ghost Child – Harry Nicoll (tenor); Third Ghost Child – Dominic Sedgewick (baritone)

Aletta Collins, designer; Giles Cadle, set designer; Gabrielle Dalton, costume designer; Matt Haskins, lighting designer

Britten Sinfonia / Sian Edwards

Barbican Theatre, London
Thursday 29th March 2018

From the streetwise allegory of Greek, through the traumas of war in The Silver Tassie and tawdry decadence of Anna Nicole: Mark-Anthony Turnage has always been unequivocal in his choice of topics for dramatic treatment, and Coraline ultimately proves no exception.

Its libretto is expertly derived by Rory Mullarky from a novella by fashionable author Neil Gaiman, but what really makes this opera succeed as a theatrical concept is the equilibrium secured between those real and imaginary worlds being traversed by the eponymous heroine in terms of their narrative symmetry and of musical evolution. In these respects, the piece is something of a breakthrough for Turnage – enhanced with an undemonstrative effectiveness of staging which makes up for in scenic integration what it might lack in visual immediacy.

Utilizing the ostensibly inflexible space of Barbican Theatre, Aletta Collins has fashioned a production which underlines the scenario’s uneasy pivoting between fairy-tale and allegory; enabling both characters and settings to appear unexceptionally human while indicative of something ‘beyond’. Her achieving this has been abetted by the engaging and never unduly tricksy designs of Giles Cadle, functional yet never utilitarian costumes by Gabrielle Dalton and effective while unfussy lighting from Matt Haskins. It might be argued the Other House into which Coraline ventures is insufficiently distinct (eye-buttons aside!) from the real one, but such visual consistency serves to unify dramatic action across and between acts; and so ensure an equivocation between environs as points up the underlying moral more explicitly.

These visual qualities are complemented by vocal ones. It might not call for virtuoso singing per se, but Coraline does require tightness of ensemble such as the present cast has in spades. Mary Bevan makes a sympathetic though never cutesy impression in the title-role, gaining in expressive conviction as the drama unfolds, while Kitty Whatley arguably steals the show in her assumption of the mothers. That of the fathers may be more simply drawn, but Alexander Robin Baker is likable and engaging; no less than Harry Nicoll as hapless inventor Mr Bobo. Gillian Keith and Francis McCafferty complement each other ideally as faded thespians Miss Spink and Miss Forcible; the former giving a whimsical cameo as the First Ghost Child, with her companions represented in equally touching fashion by Nicoll and Dominic Sedgewick.

Concerning Turnage’s music, it might easily be dismissed as effective in underpinning stage-action while lacking the memorability and individuality of his best scores. That said, there are numerous stylistic traits consistently in evidence – not least the pungent rhythmic unisons and harmonic astringency such as this composer has made his own. It helps that the score is given with such audible conviction by Britten Sinfonia, increasingly familiar in the opera-pit, and is conducted by Sian Edwards with an appropriate amalgam of incisiveness and dramatic focus.

Whatever else, Coraline secured an evidently appreciative response from adults and children alike, for whom this drama’s more traditional aspects seemed not to inhibit their enjoyment. Not a mesmeric or revelatory night at the opera, perhaps, but an enjoyable and appealing one.

Further performances of Coraline take place at the Barbican Theatre on April 3, 4, 5 & 7 at 7pm and April 7 at 2pm. For more details visit the Barbican and Royal Opera House websites

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