"I think opera needs to be part of the cultural landscape... If we only make opera about Martians who live on the moon, then it's deeply unsatisfactory." So believes John Fulljames directing Babur in London, his last production for The Opera Group before joining the Royal Opera House. The uncompromising slice of reality premiered at Basingstoke pending a countrywide tour before hitting India concerns four homegrown terrorists Mo, Faiz, Nafisa and Saira on the eve of their suicide mission. Strangely, considering the project's extensive consultations with Islamic scholars to avoid offence, celluloid has been there ahead of them with Chris Morris's 2010 achingly funny and touching Four Lions, about four incompetent British jihadists.
Jeet Thayil, the Indian poet-librettist, however, is not after all-out belly laughs, although he permits himself a few sly smiles at youthful earnestness. Much of the humour arrives in the expansive shape of the ghost of Babur, first Mughal emperor, bloodthirsty warrior and intellectual poet, incarnated with great gusto by Omar Ebrahim. The serious young Muslims are scandalised by his drunkenness and opium habit, while he taunts them with their ignorance of the Koran's praise of wine, and accuses them of being "children playing at battle, in love with death". He points out that suicide and murder are sins and announces darkly they "will be unwelcome in paradise".
The composer is Edward Rushton, born in 1972 and now resident in Zurich, who already has a stream of well-received works and a number of chamber operas commissioned by the Opera Group to his name. Here an imaginative vocal line is supported by cello, double bass, flute, electric guitar, and percussion, through which shimmer wisps and quotes from other composers −Britten's swooping cello lines, a snatch from Haydn, an ecstatic vocalise when Faiz and Saira make love.
It's indisputably accomplished, and superbly sung by sopranos Annie Gill and Kishani Jayasinghe with Damian Thantrey as the embittered Faiz. But one rather feels the piece has bitten off more than it can dramatically resolve within its chosen scope and scale. Babur's role dissolves into ambiguity (seducer? agent provocateur?), mini human dramas are evoked but never get a chance to take proper hold of the emotions, and occasionally musical intensity seems to meander independently of the narrative thread. "Life is confusion" sings Saira; well, it certainly is here.
On tour to Leeds, Birmingham, Oxford, London, Hull, Cheltenham www.theoperagroup.co.uk