OPERA / Three rounds of wry: Nick Kimberley finds wit if not brevity in Julian Grant's new work, A Family Affair, at the Almeida Opera

JULIAN GRANT is a brave, and perhaps foolhardy, man. In a programme note introducing his opera A Family Affair (premiered as part of Almeida Opera), he invites listeners to bear in mind Janacek's Jenufa or Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Not only that, he claims that the 'experimental music- theatre pieces' that he composed a few years ago at Canada's Banff Music Theatre studio cleansed his system of 'the expected manner of my academic training', which, Grant suggests, prescribes the following conditions for music theatre: 'usually set inside someone's head, anguish preferable, humour possible only if not funny, no stage action and, as a point of honour, mystify or alienate your audience'. My work, he implies, is much better than that: think Janacek, think Shostakovich.

It's for the audience to decide whether Grant has succeeded, but full marks for at least being able to caricature so much of what we get in the way of new opera. In fact, Grant's caricature might serve very well as a critique of the other new work premiered by Almeida Opera, Kevin Volans's The Man who Strides the Wind. But has Grant succeeded where Volans failed?

Up to a point, but not wholly, at least not if you subscribe to the axiom that brevity is the soul of wit. A Family Affair comes in three acts, each taking place in essentially the same set. You always run the risk of losing your audience's attention in an interval; to have two intervals invites disaster, especially as it takes ages to get people in and out of the Almeida auditorium. And then each of those acts seems to linger more than necessary. What should be a short, sharp jab in the ribs ends up lasting - with those intervals - only a little less than three hours: Janacek would have thought it long- winded.

This is the debit side of the ledger. On the credit side, Nick Dear's text (based on Ostrovsky's mid-19th-century satire on the Russian merchant class) provides genuine humour, even if there is a suspicion that, so grateful are opera audiences for a laugh, lines like 'My piles are giving me gyp' and 'You look French to the letter' get more than their due. On the other hand, the fact that you can hear those lines so clearly pays tribute to the cast, each member of which displays true comic flair. Geoffrey Dolton's slightly nasal vibrato is an exact fit for the ghastly arriviste Lazar: while Nuala Willis makes a magnificent harridan of the matchmaker Ustinya, a caricature of which Gillray would have been proud. Martin Duncan's direction knows when to go for broke and when to opt for reticence. Neil Irish's design is essentially realist clutter, although there is some unnecessary business at the rear of the stage with the singers and those mirrors with lights round that signify 'backstage'.

Grant's music is ironic and parodic, with lots of funny burps and sneezes from the winds - a little like a Benny Hill mickey- take of a silent film soundtrack. Onomatopoeia plays its part, and often the humour amounts to little more than a wry smile that lines like 'They're all gobsmacked' are sung operatically - but a wry smile is better than no smile at all, and there are many moments when Grant's high spirits raise something much more raucous. The music is well served by the Almeida Ensemble, conducted by Nicholas Kok: they attack with all the gusto necessary to pull off this kind of low comedy in a high culture. Laughs have been hard to come by throughout opera's history; Julian Grant has at least added a few more to the list.

Box office: 071 359 4404

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent