Opera: The raw and the undercooked

Stone Angels Bloomsbury theatre London
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The Independent Culture
PAUL BARKER labels his new opera, Stone Angels, "a children's opera", which in this case effectively means as much an opera with children as an opera for children.

Perhaps bearing in mind WC Fields's dictum about never acting with children, Barker has cleared the stage of adults and filled it with about 30 girls from the New London Children's Choir. The libretto (by Chris Baldwin, who also directed) plays a variation on Golding's Lord of the Flies. A group of schoolchildren is marooned on an island when their plane crashes. As the girls descend towards savagery they divide into rival gangs, with murderous results.

Given the pre-existence of Golding's novel, it is a little predictable, but then we don't go to the opera to be surprised by the plot. We know before we get to the theatre that Carmen is going to die and that Figaro will get married. Opera is about developing, and sometimes resolving, conflict through music, and Baldwin's plot at least lays out some possibilities, rather needlessly underlined by back-projected footage of war planes and bombs, as if to remind us what they look like.

The problem for a composer may lie in the very premise of the piece: what can you write that 30 still-developing voices can cope with? Well, contemporary pop music in all its numberless forms does a reasonably good job of juxtaposing savagery and tenderness, but those genres are not Barker's. His orchestra (Lontano, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez) is a quintet of flutes, clarinets, violin, cello and marimba, agreeably euphonious if hardly striking. All that he can find for his singers, though, are sing-song chants built around repetitive little figures of no great force. In an attempt to introduce a hard edge, he has singers bang stones in time to the chants.

At these points, the director/ librettist Baldwin got some of the girls into formation for a little line-dancing, but it was all too reminiscent of a polite music-and-movement class, with no sense even of playground brutality, let alone primaeval violence. Tina Bicat's costumes at least had the wit to show how the girls have transformed the ripped and torn shreds of their gym-slips into fashion statements, but nobody seems to have thought that, in circumstances like these, their hair wouldn't look as if they had all been to the hairdresser the day before. If you're going for naturalism, you can't be half-hearted with it.

The show's programme acknowledges financial assistance from no fewer than eight funding bodies. I'm sure none of the funding was lavish, because it never is, but that does suggest that the audience might expect a full and accomplished evening for its pounds 10 admission. Instead, we got a mere 40 minutes of undercooked music theatre, with an orchestra of five and an amateur cast. Short measure by any standards.