The old way to debunk opera was to say that nobody sang about passing the sugar. But it's the opposite. In the service of stylised emotion, you can sing about the most banal or sublime things - or, as here, a fusion of the two - and carry an audience with you. It's all about how well you do it.
Right at the end of David Bruce's new opera, he was required to set the full act of childbirth to music, without any words to help him. Being a father probably made no difference, but what did was that the librettist, Anna Reynolds, could get him to the moment of no return with a tone and style that worked, and that he'd responded thus far with exuberant flair, just enough touches of sensitivity, and a fine sense of timing.
The tone was a very English mix of jokiness and sudden solemnity: "Five Birthdays and a Funeral" would sum it up. In the delivery room, a series of family snapshots is punctuated by the activities of two cleaners, who progressively get it together and deliver the happy ending themselves. The passing cameos are sharply observed and class-conscious to the point of stereotyping, as with the two football fans at the beginning and their dysfunctional family relationships, neatly dispatched by a midwife with a red card.
Fortunately, Bruce's score lived its own life, full of rapid rotating figures and quick-change colours, with a quirky tonality and a momentum that carried the show. Mothers came and went: the self-absorbed one who sat in a birthing pool and sent the paternal candidates packing; the IVF one who discovered she was having quins. This episode hit all the right buttons of midwifely humour and maternal fantasy.
On the way, pretensions were popped, heartstrings tugged. In the most harrowing episode, a prisoner, chained to her warder, prepared to have her baby taken away, while the adoptive parents got the nursery ready. Last but one, a woman meditated on an impending stillbirth, beautifully sung by Louise Mott.
But the big finish was the best. Backed up by a positively Straussian ensemble of wordless nurses, Jacqueline Miura soared to a peak of pain and ecstasy, suddenly dissolving into a tiny shimmering postlude. Bill Bankes-Jones directed with aplomb, and 13 deft instrumentalists kept up the pace under Tim Murray.
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