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The Commission/Café Kafka, opera review

Linbury Theatre, London

The rationale is perfect. Aldeburgh Music, Opera North, and the Royal Opera have started co-commissioning chamber operas, because that’s how the art-form is developing. Birtwistle, Turnage, and Ades began this way, but the small companies which gave them their breaks are now defunct, and must be replaced.

Alas, the first product – Elspeth Brooke’s The Commission, with words by Jack Underwood – should have been strangled at birth.

Even with foreknowledge of the plot, one had no idea what was going on; the atonal score was a clumsily disjointed collage, while the libretto lurched risibly between the gnomic and the would-be numinous.

Brooke had the nerve to claim kinship with those perfectly-plotted masterpieces Vertigo and Lift to the Scaffold: if only.

The links between this piece and Francisco Coll’s Café Kafka, which followed, lay in director Annabel Arden, designer Joanna Parker, conductor Richard Baker, and a stunning group of singers and instrumentalists, but this opera was brilliantly conceived and executed.

Taking its cue from Meredith Oakes’s stream-of-consciousness libretto, the score was a brightly-coloured high-wire act which the singers translated into witty physical comedy as dysfunctional folk in a bar; its musical coup de theatre revealed 29-year-old Coll to be a master of his art.

This could become a classic.