Seven Angels, Royal Opera House, Linbury Studio, July 2011

At the entrance to the auditorium was a display of brochures by the Friends of the Earth, and an Energy Bill petition ready for signing. This is a story about the desecration of the environment, told in the form of gluttony and the abandonment of boundaries in the bringing up of a spoiled young prince.

Yet it’s supposedly based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the seven angels are lost, forgotten and abandoned by God, Satan, and Milton himself. They no longer know who or what they are, so they construct a story, and transform themselves into the characters of the story. This much can be understood by reading the programme, but while the singing was loud the words were not always helpful, and this earnest endeavour is without a clear development in Glyn Maxwell’s libretto or Luke Bedford’s music. Certainly the music is good, if somewhat sententious at times and lacking in tempo variations, but the staging with the orchestra behind the singers made it hard to hear quieter passages. For instance at one point in the second half, the sound of the singers flipping the pages of the books was louder than the music itself.

The prince gorges himself, all photos Alastair Muir

Ah, yes, the books. Sitting carefully upright against one another on stage they were tipped over like dominoes, a feature that eventually felt a bit tiresome, and in the second half the books were piled up to make a long wall across the front of the stage, blocking the orchestral sound for those of us in the front few rows, though the singers were heard very loudly indeed. The prince ate the pages of the books, and part of the stage opened out like a book in two different ways, one showing a flourishing tree, another showing a dead one. In the second half a gigantic book on the pile of regular books was opened to release silver helium balloons, later black ones, and later nothing at all.

Obviously a great deal of thought has gone into this production by John Fulljames, but nothing gripped me. There were lots of clever ideas, and the performers expressed huge emotion in their facial gestures, but this alone cannot create good theatre. That can only come from the internal structure of the composition, and perhaps this would work better as an oratorio with the orchestra communicating more directly with the audience.

Making an opera on the worthy but politically correct theme of environmental preservation — instigated, according to the programme, by a visit to the millennium seedbank at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex — is surely not easy, but it reminds me that composers of successful operas have often battled the poets who act as their librettists. The theatrical element is essential in opera, and I’m afraid I missed it here.

This work is performed by The Opera Group and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Nicholas Collon. It premiered four weeks ago at the CBSO Centre Birmingham, and there are two further performances at Covent Garden, on July 14 and 15 — for details click here.

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