A Child of Our Time, Coliseum, London

Triumph of hope over experience
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The Independent Culture

Tippett's great pacifist oratorio was first performed, on 19 March 1944, in a London theatre. Sixty-five years on, in the centenary of the composer's birth, it is staged in another one. The choir at that first performance was the London Region Civil Defence Choir. Those were dark days. But the darkness would declare the glory of light, believed Tippett, for whom hope was the only refuge. It still is.

Tippett's great pacifist oratorio was first performed, on 19 March 1944, in a London theatre. Sixty-five years on, in the centenary of the composer's birth, it is staged in another one. The choir at that first performance was the London Region Civil Defence Choir. Those were dark days. But the darkness would declare the glory of light, believed Tippett, for whom hope was the only refuge. It still is.

Not surprisingly, then, darkness and light are the principal metaphors in Jonathan Kent's powerful first staging. It is a striking piece of work, opening in abject darkness, a sliver of light revealing, gradually, that the stage is strewn with bodies. There is movement, slow but purposeful, in the middle of the human detritus; indistinct figures, broken but unbowed, are caught in the cross-beams of Mark Henderson's powerful lighting. Faces are illuminated. Individuals emerge. This is Tippett's bleak midwinter: "The World turns on its dark side."

The staging of choral masterworks (Bach's St John Passion and Verdi's Requiem) is fast becoming a staple of English National Opera's repertoire. There are good reasons for and equally good reasons against the practice. On the credit side, the pieces are inherently dramatic, if not theatrical. They give ENO's chorus a leading role for once. On the debit side, there is a very real danger of upsetting the natural balance of the works in seeking to "illustrate" them.

It has to be said that Kent and his designer, Paul Brown, come within a whisper of doing just this at times. You could argue that the symbolism sometimes weighs too heavily on proceedings, as if the designer needed to feel more a part of them.

Take, for instance, the forest of wires delivering potential weapons - knives, stones - from above. The act of burying them so that they may then be unearthed to some positive purpose is a visual complication - perhaps even a distraction - that we don't need. Tippett's words and music are nothing if not disarmingly direct. Then again, as his soprano (the radiant Susan Gritton) eloquently leads us into the first spiritual, "Steal Away", and those knives emerge from the ground as lights ascend like rising stars, no one could accuse Kent of undermining the spirit of the moment. But does it actually need underlining?

Those spirituals are the emotional climacterics of A Child of Our Time, serving Tippett in much the same way as the chorales do Bach in the Passions. They are, harmonically speaking, the richest moments in a spare and soulful musical landscape, one that is wonderfully served by the conductor, Martyn Brabbins, ENO's excellent chorus and the heartfelt soloists Gritton, Sara Fulgoni, Timothy Robinson and Brindley Sherratt.

Kent, too, keeps the narrative imagery well focused. His big moments are Tippett's big moments, such as the hand-operated searchlight that picks out the boy, the scapegoat, the child of our time, from the crowd. Again, some may feel that he labours the point that the boy is, in effect, the Christ child. But I didn't.

He is, after all, a powerful symbol of sacrifice and rebirth for every age, and when he is laid in earth and re-emerges coiled around the newly planted tree of life, the hope engendered in Tippett's uplifting music is movingly conveyed. I won't reveal Kent's final coup de théâtre - the prophetic sting in the tail of his staging - but as the soprano's aching melismas (Gritton sublime) lead off all the voices in the stupendous setting of "Deep River", with each member of the chorus now standing on his own square of freshly laid turf, we can at least put our faith in new beginnings - even if they do fall prey to the same old mistakes.

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