Given that Skellig appears to be a smelly old tramp with an appetite for dead mice and decayed bluebottles, it's a relief that the new opera Skellig, commissioned by the Sage at Gateshead, doesn't go in for scratch-and-sniff technology. Even without the chance to experience that particular unattractive aspect of Skellig – a grouchy, winged creature whom young Michael finds and befriends – there is more than enough to engage listeners of all ages in this surprisingly successful children's opera.
David Almond's enthralling story, a hit when brought to the stage of the Young Vic by Trevor Nunn and now a film to be released next year starring Tim Roth, Skellig, is set in the north-east and the opera involves a chorus of teenagers from the area. Their contribution – polished singing and evocative movement choreographed by Mark Bruce – adds a remarkable dimension, filling the gaps that a concert hall production inevitably misses in terms of specific sites and scenic effects.
In his appropriately stark production, on a striking designed by Rae Smith, Braham Murray matches the delicacy and restrained writing in Almond's libretto, allowing the audience to focus on Tod Machover's intriguing soundscape. A mix of ear-tickling electronics and more traditional musical gestures supplied by the Northern Sinfonia, the score benefits from Garry Walker's astute musical direction. The score avoids resorting to the clichés of a tale coloured by hooting owls, a sick baby whose faltering heartbeat is central to the tale and a skeletal figure who slurps Newcastle Brown ale. (This is about an angel of the north, after all.)
Whether or not the theme of redemption is grasped by the younger members of the audience, they are clearly enchanted by the sense of transformation that is at the heart of Skellig. In the title role, Omar Ebrahim brings the half-dead Skellig to vivid life, growling incoherently from the lowest depths and scaling the heights of squawking falsetto. Merrin Lazyan makes a feisty, tomboy Mina, while Sophie Daneman (warmly lyrical as she sings to her frail child) and Paul Keohone get under the skin of Michael's distracted parents.
But the young tenor Matthew Long steals the show as Michael in a most promising operatic debut. His portrayal of a teenage boy is as convincingly acted as it is beautifully sung. In all, a spell-binding operatic outing for Skellig which, like the enigmatic creature itself, deserves many reincarnations.Reuse content