Peterborough: where operatic angels fearlessly tread

Opera is not just about boxes at Covent Garden, as a handful of professional singers from Glyndebourne and 600 citizens of Peterborough have shown with their latest peripatetic creation. Robert Maycock joined them on walkabout
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The Independent Culture
A stream of small, green people headed for the cathedral, crashing into the procession of white-robed, monkish figures that was trying to pass through the same door. The interior, in near darkness, hummed with activity which focused on the crossing, but extended past the transepts towards a murmur of musical instruments being made ready for In Search of Angels, the community opera on which 600 Peterborough residents have worked with the professionals of Glyndebourne Education.

And if the aisle was full of noises, that was only the start of it. The following hours filled the building from chancel to triforium, and then took the music out on the streets until it arrived at a place of which outsiders hadn't the faintest knowledge.

Everybody in Peterborough seems to know that the city really has two cathedrals. The second, called Queensgate, is ultra-modern, and is a temple to shopping. At night, according to custom, it is shut tight. This week it has revealed a secret inner life of mystery and song. In Search of Angels loses the seraphic objects of its pursuit while still in the cathedral proper. Queensgate isn't where the angels have been passing the time of day, but it does hold an unexpected answer to the quest.

It's the third massive collaboration to involve the opera company and the composer Jonathan Dove, who between them are now expert in the logistics. They, and the writer Alistair Campbell, started from meetings and workshops with local groups to drum up ideas for themes, songs and storylines. Recorders Anon, Classic Harmony, the Barbershop Choir, March Concert Singers, Peterborough Children's Choir and Intermediate Strings and Advanced Concert Band - there they all were, and more, each with a part in the story, a say in the plot or a line in a song, once the finished product had been worked up by the main authors.

Like Dreamdragons, Glyndebourne Education's opera in Ashford two years ago, Angels is rooted in local history and legend, and fuelled by live feelings, often mixed. Mother Fen created the land. Christianity turned against her to build up the city, and squashed its people. Commerce has built it up again, and locked the angels out. If this commercial phase fails the citizens, where can they turn? Solo singers personalise and act out the dilemmas, but the weight of the action falls on to the local performing groups and the other people from the city who joined the cast as the opera took shape.

It centres on a long, spectacular scene in which the building of the cathedral, and its sacking in the time of Cromwell, are enacted in the great space of the nave. The audience promenades, trying to dodge flying ropes, falling ladders, fleeing angels, and a thunderous invasion of samba drummers as the west doors are flung open.

The destroyers gradually prove to be prophets. They take their followers through the cathedral close, which is peopled with giant masks and sculptures, past a 12ft-tall traffic warden to the Guildhall, where the city's railway- and road-workers greet them in close harmony but cannot come up with the elusive angels. On they go, into a doorway beside a still-open McDonald's - no drop-outs from the cast, a quick on-the-hoof snack for the press officer and forward to a series of ever larger inner sanctums. The stores are empty, but an orchestra has got there first. Let down by religion and shopping, the cast are about to abandon hope, when suddenly... well, let's not reveal the answer to their prayers, but it isn't called Portillo or Blair.

After Ashford, you expect Glyndebourne's community shows to be slickly co-ordinated, and so it turns out again. Dove judges just the right musical tone, in the middle ground between Britten and Lloyd Webber, which can generate rousing tunes for the biggest moments and stretch to take in the assorted styles of the groups - out in the open he conducts from an accordion. The secret is in the turnover of textures and colours, and an eager ear for combining sounds, recorders and cimbalom (dulcimer), would you believe, or brass band and voices. It isn't a formula and the character is quite different from Dreamdragons, more solemn and single- minded, less anarchic and fizzy.

In Search of Angels has its longueurs. After an imposing, long-breathed start, the first act loses force and doesn't manage to make the story clear. The entry of a dozen diminutive, nervous angels waving a perspex architect's model is not quite the end-of-act coup it ought to be. Even during the building scene, hard-won dramatic tension is dissipated in an extended sequence of high-church camp.

But the cast carries it through, bolstered by Nuala Willis's formidable Mother Fen, a lyrical counter-tenor poet from Jonathan Peter Kenny, Wyn Pencarreg's sonorously prophetic Malcontent, and the epitome of vain abbots acted by Omar Ebrahim, though not sung by him on the first night, thanks to throat trouble. Geoffrey Dolton shadowed him at short notice and put his lines across firmly.

After two and a half hours of wandering through the city, the emotional temperature steadily rising, the response is fervent and noisy. The ancient cathedral can have seen nothing so exciting for centuries - nor, perhaps, can the ancient opera houses.

n Further performances take place tonight and tomorrow, 7.30pm. Tickets: 01733 317336