Push!, Riverside Studios, London<br/>Mayskaya Noch, Garsington Opera, Oxfordshire

An opera pregnant with the future
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The Independent Culture

In opera, childbirth happens off-stage while the audience pace nervously with their cigars. Jenufa's love-child goes from cytoblast to new-born between Acts I and II of Janacek's opera, while Cio-Cio San's Sorrow is conceived, born and achieves toddlerhood in one 20-minute interval. Only lately has this fundamental experience found its way to centre-stage: first in the ecstatic agonies of John Adams's dramatic oratorio El Nino, then in Sally Beamish's gothick opera, Monster, and now, courtesy of Tête à Tête, composer David Bruce, and playwright Anna Reynolds, in Push!

Billed as the first opera about childbirth, Push! is more subtle a work than its wry gas-and-aria title implies. The shivering glissandi, below-the-stave moans, outraged expletives and spiked coloratura of the six labouring women - football-crazy Nimmy, sybaritic Cara, raging Maddy, quintuplet- carrying Mary, the unnamed hospital cleaner whose autumn romance is sealed in a vigil over a premature baby, and Angela, preparing to give birth to her stillborn son - are the least radical part of Bruce and Reynolds' creation. More interesting is the way they capture the multiple ambiguities of those long moments before one's life changes forever, and found something of every woman in six tightly scored vignettes.

With shades of Janacek, Piazzola and Britten, a rich amniotic wash of muted brass, piano and woodwind, and fricative stirrings from the accordion, strings and percussion, Bruce has imagined the unknowable soundworld of the unborn child. For young Nimmy (Helen Withers), balancing on an exercise ball with a hand-held television, the birth itself is an unwelcome distraction from the Crystal Palace game. For glamorous Cara (Rachel Hynes), lounging in her birth pool like a Jackie Collins vamp in a Jacuzzi, it is respite from the relentless attentions of her three enthusiastic lovers: the investment banker with "unnaturally large hands", the gondolier with a "despicable nose", and the eco-warrior with "terrible eyes", all played by James Edwards.

For Maddy (Tara Harrison), convicted of shaking her first child to death and giving birth to her second while chained to a Daily Mail-reading prison officer (Mark Richardson), labour is "hell." (Reynolds does not state whether the conviction is sound.) For Mary (Withers again), abandoned by her husband, communing with her quintuplets, floating like a hovercraft in her vast hospital gown, drugged up in preparation for a caesarean section, gazing wondrously at her huge, shape-shifting belly, and intoxicated by the miracle of assisted fertility, it is heaven. For the cleaner (Jacqueline Miura), it is at once the most ordinary and extraordinary event in the world. Which it is.

Bill Bankes-Jones's production, designed by Tim Meacock in the infantilised primaries and rice-pudding melamine of an NHS delivery room, deftly balances humour, fantasy and tragedy. Cara's obstetricians - it's a breech birth - are deep-sea divers, while the surgeons delivering Mary's litter wear hard-hats, reflective vests marked "Gynae", and carry chainsaws. Tête à Tête's tirelessly versatile cast of eight take several roles apiece, each of which is strongly characterised.

Angela's aria, sung by Louise Mott, in which she speaks of her hopes for the child she now knows to be dead, is so horribly and unthinkably sad that I'd slap a health-warning on this opera for any pregnant woman. (Likewise Jenufa.) For those of us now caught on the hamster-wheel of packed-lunches, play-dates and homework, however, Push! is a remarkable work: wise, sympathetic and frequently hilarious.

The delicate charms of Rimsky-Korsakov's magic-realist romantic comedy Mayskaya Noch are given a miraculous boost in Olivia Fuchs's new production for Garsington Opera. Beautifully directed, ingeniously designed by Jamie Vartan, well-sung from top to bottom, and played with great smoothness and tenderness by the orchestra under Elgar Howarth, it is quite the best production I have seen from this company.

For Fuchs, this slender comic fairy-tale is a tremendous achievement: a fusion of the talents for detail and concept that she has shown in her productions of Rusalka (Opera North) and Macbeth (Opera Holland Park). The characters of, and relationships between, Hanna (Antonia Sotgiu), Levko (Peter Wedd), Golova (Darren Jeffrey), the Sister-in-Law (Clarissa Meek), the Distiller (Stuart Kale), Kalenik (Geoffrey Dolton) and the water-nymph Pannochka (Michelle Walton) are warmly developed, the direction of the chorus is excellent. For those who are usually allergic to country-house opera, Mayskaya Noch is more than worth the trip.

Push! Shrewsbury Music Hall (01743 281281) on 28 June, then touring; Mayskaya Noch, Garsington Opera (01865 361636) until 11 July

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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