Clara Kanter, Rosie Middleton, Sarah Parkin, Kelly Poukens; Jenni Hogan (flute), Ben Smith (piano)
Métier MSV 28609 61:51 mins
ROBE is Alastair White’s second self-styled ‘fashion opera’ (following on from WEAR; preceding WOAD). It was premiered at London’s alternative opera festival Tête à Tête in 2019, and the original cast reprise their roles for this debut recording. The Scottish composer also wrote the libretto for the fantastical, dystopian ROBE, a tale combining artificial intelligence, the natural world and the eponymous red clothing. It’s highly poetic, with extensive use of paragraph breaks. This is not a high concept story and, as the diction isn’t always clear, listening with the text is essential. (Even after multiple read throughs, the plot remains elusive.)
The music, on the other hand, is excellent. Scored for two sopranos, two mezzos, flute and piano, the limited timbral palette is used with intelligent frugality. The texture, though often thin, never feels overtly sparse – flautist Jenni Hogan and pianist Ben Smith provide ample instrumental sustenance. Clara Kanter impresses as Rowan, handling microtones and the occasional push beyond the usual mezzo register. Similarly, storyteller Kelly Poukens casts aside the guide ropes to climb multiple ledger lines, often sympathetically supported by Hogan, who knocks off complex phrases, harmonics and extended techniques with such subtlety you’d hardly know what was involved. The entire cast has a firm grounding in contemporary music and it shows. Given ROBE’s commitment to visual and musical integration, the next staging is anticipated with interest.