Imago, Glyndebourne Opera, East Sussex


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The Independent Culture

Glyndebourne’s education department has always been the brand-leader in community opera, and this time composer Orlando Gough, librettist Stephen Plaice, and director Susannah Waters have hit on an unusually topical idea.

In a (rather large) nutshell, the scheme of Imago is as follows: Andy, an occupational therapist in a geriatric care home, has invented a digital tool by which elderly patients can create a younger version of themselves; this they can direct as a Bunraku handler animates his puppets.

Thus can they realise unfulfilled dreams, and thus does the protagonist Elisabeth create her youthful alter ego Lisette, who embarks on a series of romantic encounters with other digitally-created figures in a digital world. Sometimes Elisabeth finds this therapeutic, other times she nervously reins in Lisette’s impulsive behaviour.

The conceit is pursued with witty inventiveness (the imagos have to make pit-stops at the Recharge café) but the humane purpose is kept firmly in mind, both for those at the end of their lives – who need and deserve all the palliatives going, whether emotional or chemical - and also for adolescents, who these days are more attuned to building relationships online than they are in reality. 

Gough and co have roped in a cast of amateurs of all ages to perform alongside the professionals: when the curtain rises on an imposing set in which the care home is represented by a giant honeycomb of bedrooms, it’s clear production values will be high. Designers Es Devlin and Bronia Housman have been joined by Paul Pyant, whose lighting designs harness computer graphics to brilliant effect: the proscenium becomes a self-transforming space in which one often doesn’t know whether the figures one is watching are real or virtual - and when they are real, they are made to seem transparent.

Gough’s long experience with semi-improvised choral music allows him to create some lovely miasmas of sound, but his default mode for solos and duets is a cross between Philip Glass and West End musical. Tenor Daniel Norman and baritone Adam Gilbert give committed performances as the therapist and principal ‘imago’; Jean Rigby’s Elizabeth and Joanna Songi’s Lisette are outstandingly well sung, and the young chorus sings and dances its heart out. Powered by the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon, the show has moments of superb spectacle, but it’s finally sunk by the sheer weight of its own messages.