WHEN CHURCHES might be arts centres, nurseries, bijoux residences or restaurants, what does it mean to write a "church opera"? There are implications in terms of subject matter, and of theatrical style. Low- budget ad hocism will play its part, as might the local community (no longer the congregation). There might, with luck, be the opportunity to include an organ in the orchestra, which will otherwise be small. And, chorus apart, there will be no room for a cast of thousands.
All of this can lead to a deadening earnestness, traces of which are apparent in Jonathan Dove's new church opera Tobias and the Angel, premiered last Wednesday. But Dove, his librettist David Lan, and director Kate Brown have the wit to keep it light, which does not preclude serious intentions. Lan's libretto, after the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, tells the story of Tobit (a "good man" says Lan's synopsis) who has the misfortune to be blinded by birdshit. A difficult moment to pull off, but here and elsewhere Brown's staging (designed by Louise Belson) copes delightfully: a chorus of children festoons Tobit with white party streamers.
The opera tells how Tobit's son Tobias travels to Ecbatana in the company of a Stranger, who turns out to be the angel Raphael (counter-tenor, natch: a suitably ethereal Jonathan Peter Kenny). Love, marriage and restoration of sight ensue. Tobias comes from the same family of dim innocents as Wagner's Siegfried, and at one point he falls into a river that might be a distant musical tributary of Wagner's Rhine.
Other musico-dramatic gestures would not have dismayed Verdi, while some of the children's choruses might come from Lionel Bart's Oliver!.
In other words, Dove writes tonal music to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. That is not the only possibility for contemporary opera, but Dove manages it well here, better than in his last opera Flight, which I thought too, well, flighty (Glyndebourne revives it in August). His orchestra (conducted from the pulpit by David Parry) deploys grandiloquent organ alongside a more garrulous accordion, and there is beguiling writing for flute and clarinet, together and apart. Dove gives the singers music that they find comfortable, and reaps the rewards in textual clarity. He has an excellent cast, including David Barrell (Tobit), Andrew Burden (Tobias) and Ann Taylor (Sara), voices to grace any opera house, and in a cameo role, Omar Ebrahim is as malevolent an incubus as you could wish. The chorus threatens to raise the roof.
Church opera, then? If you like. There are pious moments in Tobias and the Angel that made me uncomfortable, but take out the religious elements (not as difficult as it might seem) and you have a good story well told through music: which sounds like a pretty good opera, church or otherwise.
Further performances at Christchurch, Highbury Grove N5 (0171-359 4404) tonight and tomorrow. `Flight' is at Glyndebourne (01273 813813), 14-28 AugustReuse content