Life is a Dream, Argyle Works, Birmingham


When the young Pierre Boulez said that opera houses should be blown up, he was attacking, not opera, but its cultural ambience- the snobbery, exclusivity and expense.

Nowadays most opera companies work hard to break down those barriers- none more so than Birmingham Opera. For the past 25 years its artistic director, Graham Vick, has shunned conventional theatres in favour of spaces which are both more flexible and more 'ordinary'. And he has consistently broken down the barriers which usually separate the professionals from the amateurs in both music and theatre.

For this production of Jonathan Dove's brand new opera, Life is a Dream, the company uses a vast warehouse in industrial inner Birmingham, and employs some 200 'extras' and supplementary chorus. There is no separate stage- audience, singers and actors share a single space. The sense of participation, of closeness to the action, is palpable and exhilarating.

Vick's production, in its use of the ample space and its varied and effective lighting (designer- Giuseppe Di lorio) is a tour de force. Even before the music begins, a wedding party and a Christmas party weave their way through the audience as we enter the space, while the orchestra is strategically placed in a central circle. All the complexities of co-ordination and movement seemed to be completely mastered.

The conductor William Lacey held everything together, and there were committed and eloquent performances from all six principal singers. It was not their fault if some of the complexities of the plot passed us by. (A synopsis in the programme would have helped.)

Dove has had considerable success as an opera composer. Flight for Glyndebourne, and Pinocchio for Opera North have enjoyed a popular success, unusual for contemporary opera. It is not hard to see why. His command of the orchestra is assured, his sense of drama is acute, and his vocal lines are eminently singable. If anything, too much so. His musical idiom is astoninshingly old fashioned, recalling Respighi, Richard Strauss and occassionally the Bernstein of West Side Story. Britten sounds modern besides this, and the finale is utterly banal - the ending of the musical that Richard Rodgers never wrote. All this undoubtedly makes his work “accessible”- to use a current cant word- and if it induces newcomers to opera to explore further, so much the better.

But durable contemporary opera has to be made of sterner stuff. The Stockhausen the Company has scheduled for August will offer a meatier challenge.

Running to March 31st