OPERA / Only human: Meredith Oakes reviews Craig's Progress at Meltdown

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The Independent Culture
So, I was in this burger bar with Martin Butler, and he says, 'What I really want to do is write an opera about superman.' That's the sort of offer a director just can't refuse.'

Why not? Some directors would have been out of that burger bar faster than if it had just been condemned by a health inspector. John Abulafia stayed, though. And so his company, Mecklenburgh Opera, was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday, giving the world premiere of its Martin Butler commission, Craig's Progress: an opera about superman.

Actually, it was about Craig, an Everyman in a superhero suit, stumbling through a plot littered with dully conceived comic-book heroes, who doubled as cod Wagnerian protagonists, and trebled as capitalist stereotypes. They saved the world, discovered the divine spark in mankind, and visited locations including the Rockefeller Centre's ice-rink, the boiler-room of a skyscraper and 'the upper reaches of the RCA building'. It's the ICA building, however, that seems to have spawned these characters - dressed like bobbysoxers or astronauts or golden statues, or anything, really.

In case you think it sounds fun, it wasn't. It must have been wishful thinking of that sort which led to such a wilderness of cliche. Of course the cliches were deliberate. Of course they were meant to be cute. But two hours of cute is 115 minutes too many.

Where was the wit? Here's an example: 'Ice cream]' 'You scream?' That this exchange took place in an apocalyptic, frozen world did not redeem it. Where was the sex? The Fiery Stoker brandished his massive poker; the works of Freud were produced as Craig battled against his fears. Sex wasn't much fun.

Which left the music. It certainly was a busy score, with scales running in all directions, irregularly zapped by offbeat percussive chords: a musical shooting party, scrupulously run by the conductor, Anne Manson, with a medium-sized ensemble with, fashionably, two bass clarinets and piano (four hands). Quotes abounded: Wagner, Broadway, Mozart. It was hard to find any phrase that had a bold shape to it. It was hard to find any expressive intention at all, just as it was hard to find any real intellectual control in Steve Pruslin's manically rhymed libretto.

The baritone Jeremy Huw Williams put every ounce of passion and clarity into the title role: a flowing, nuanced performance. But this was a piece that soaked up the talents of singers like blotting paper, leaving little to show.

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