Alien nation

OPERA The Roswell Incident MAC, Birmingham
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"Incident" is rather a good word. It has the right Kafkaesque overtones. The arrest of K; Jan Masaryk's tumble from a Prague window; the Siberian nuclear accident. All might class as "incidents", to be clinically hushed up, with hints of men in black hats (or bearskins) quietly ensuring that anyone in the know stays silent.

The "incident" that inspired Music Theatre Wales's latest touring piece, to a Heledd Wyn text with music by John Hardy, was the reported, and sporadically documented, discovery of humanoid yet alien remains in the New Mexico Desert 50 years ago. After the cover-up, the puzzle remains.

But it's the concealment and repression, as much as the mystery itself, that this music-theatre piece addresses ("opera" it may be, but it straddles and defies genres) - especially in its rather more pithy and involving second half.

It's not without problems. MTW's rather overused metallic sets bring out the claustrophobia, yet (as in their earlier staging of Peter Maxwell Davies's The Lighthouse and Glass's The Fall of the House of Usher) constrict movement to a statuesque, non-naturalistic minimum. The eye needs more to delight in.

Hardy's score for The Roswell Incident is rather more Glassian than his last effort, Flowers (curious, after indulging in a Haydn Op 76 Quartet on the Aston Expressway, to find oneself assailed by a kind of Haydnesque minimalist opening). The electronic effects, the vocal line and the text, all lapse intermittently into the category of thinnish musical. Indeed, the instrumental background (string quartet and keyboard, capably and in the main unoverbearingly played by members of the MTW ensemble under Michael Rafferty) never quite matched Hardy's aim ("to heighten the emotion, concentrate on the human condition under stress, etc"). The thinly staged, unrelieved longueurs of Gwion Thomas's 20-minute opening monologue (as the military intelligence officer forced to disbelieve his eyes and hush it all up), albeit capably projected, just don't quite work.

So where does Roswell succeed? Opening monologue aside, the set pieces actually achieve lift-off. Charlotte Page brings strong personality to her soliloquy as the troubled secretary, while Hardy's fretful, quick- fire exchanges - the mildly histrionic, expressionistic scene with tenor pathologist (Gareth Lloyd) - are witty and work: indeed the vocal pointillism clicks even when its jagged instrumental equivalent grows petulantly repetitious. And if production ideas remain oratorio-thin, the odd instrumental touch (eerie, zither-like keyboard, a three-second glisten of violin harmonics) makes appealing subliminal contributions. Yet a bass clarinet might have cheered things up no end.

Paradoxically, amid the Tippettian contradictions of verbal and visual image, it's where the piece settles for straight Musical (shored up by the simplest Lloyd Webberish or minimalist patternings) that it nearly wins through. The focal character, a curious sort of android-cum-androgynous child-cum-alien who - like the mysterious intruders - seems to stand outside normal time and space, induces fear and apprehension ("sickened by the thought of touch") because he / she seems to be an unnerving liberated reflection of ourselves. The big lie - akin to Expressionist theatre or futurist cinema passim - might chiefly be about not flying saucer intruders, but growing up: the dutiful loss of natural intuitions powerful enough to override societal straitjackets, adult neuroses or petty "explanations", the closed mind. Hardy gives his young sylph recitatives ranging from minor thirds (akin to Morrissey at his droniest) to quite supple, intricate vocal cat's cradles and octave pirouettes. The intelligent, largely self- schooled young performer here may have just lacked the voice, but not the presence: brazen stare, competent cuing, relaxed manner, canny anticipation of move and gesture, hers was the sharpest acting on offer. A pity Wyn's text here so often cascaded to the kitsch.

Final perf: Fri, Torch Theatre, Milford Haven. Booking: 01646 695267