How the Whale Became: Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House
Helen Wallace reviews the first production of Julian Philips's new opera
With the Lion King and War Horse on in the West End, the stakes have never been higher for children’s theatre, and the young audience being taken to Julian Philips’s new opera How the Whale became are likely to have seen it all. So I breathed a sigh of relief when a set of fantastical excess came into view as we descended into the Linbury Studio’s forbidding depths… Tom Scutt’s panoramic city of cardboard-box houses teeters on piles of blue palettes, strung with twinkling lights, studded with instruments (which appear to be growing out of the slats), replete with ladders, pianos and chimneys. It’s Heath Robinson-meets-the-Wombles with a sprinkle of fairy dust, and provides an absorbing feast for eyes and minds.
Philips has form in this arena: the high-energy Knight Crew at Glyndebourne, and sophisticated Varjak Paw in the Linbury a few years back are just two of many works for the young. He’s learnt the hard way to put his music at the service of drama. These Just So-like tales based on Ted Hughes’s poems felt like a true collaboration with the multi-skilled group of musicians (led by an amazing Geoffrey Paterson at the piano), who were as much part of the action as the singers (violinist Isla Mundell-Perkins was a feisty cat who could fell a rat with her whine), and appeared to conjure up harmonies and sound-effects spontaneously.
While ideas teemed and unusual sonorities lit up the air (from bass clarinet, battery of percussion, accordion to haunting musical saw) Philips’s self-discipline led to a lack of memorable music. The clear, slow metrical delivery of lines had a practical purpose, but quickly became relentless, and I longed for a structured song (though my 10-year-old companions assured me it was a lot easier to hear the words than in Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are…). They also liked the supple switching between the full-blown ‘operatic’ style of singing and the sort of singing they might do, which then slipped simply into speech at poignant moments.
There’s no plot, as such, since the libretto (by Edward Kemp) is based on a series of poems describing how animals acquired their identities, but Natalie Abrahami’s lively direction of Boy (a tiggerish Andrew Dickinson), Girl (soprano Fflur Wyn on delicious form, pictured left) and God (confusingly both Njabulo Madlala and James McOran-Campbell) around the mysterious ‘making machine’ provided a focus.
The planting of a whale-wort seed was delightfully dramatised, with the charismatic Madlala bursting out of the vegetable patch in grey oil-skins to be hung high in a net in the acqueous gloom; McOran-Campbell’s skittery tail-less peacock was comic gold, while the raging lion made only of left-overs provided a moment of genuine operatic anguish. Soprano Donna Lennard was the hilarious, coloratura frog who provoked God’s wrath by stealing bits of everyone else’s identities, and was left at the end with only her hop as consolation. Serious points about the search for selfhood were made without sentimentality; be warned, the cow really does die.
Though the 50-minute first half drifted a little, my two transfixed companions pointed out the second half had ‘fewer, bigger things’, and the whole felt well-shaped. A careworn critic, ignoring the happy faces surrounding him, gave me a curdled grimace as he left.
Looks like Julian Phillips has a hit on his hands.
'How the Whale Became' runs at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House until 4 January. Visit the Royal Opera House website for more information.