Opera Holland Park 2023 – Jonathan Dove’s Itch – with Adam Temple-Smith, Natasha Agarwal, Rebecca Bottone & James Laing; directed by Stephen Barlow; conducted by Jessica Cottis

Itch – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by Alasdair Middleton after the eponymous novels by Simon Mayo [world premiere; sung in English with English surtitles]

Itchingham Loft – Adam Temple-Smith
Jack Lofte – Natasha Agarwal
Jude Lofte / Roshanna Wing – Rebecca Bottone
Nicholas Lofte – Eric Greene
Bob Evert / Kinch – Rob Burt
Cake / Berghahn – James Laing
Watkins – Victoria Simmonds
Nathaniel Flowerdew – Nicholas Garrett

City of London Sinfonia
Jessica Cottis

Stephen Barlow – Director
Frankie Bradshaw – Designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting
Jack Henry James Fox – Projection

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 26 July, 2023
Venue: Opera Holland Park, Kensington, London

Chemistry and music perhaps seem an odd combination, though fans of Ken Russell will recall that, in his documentary film Elgar, he included an amusing scene about that composer’s love of science with an explosion of smoke in his laboratory. However, Jonathan Dove’s new opera – based on the Itch novels by Simon Mayo – is generally more serious in theme and intent, although it also opens with an explosion, as the brother and sister children Itchingham and Jack experiment with their chemical elements. The scene evokes the opening of Hänsel und Gretel where two siblings also raucously play, only to be halted by their irate mother, before their assuaging father appears. But a certain level of wit underlies the narrative nevertheless – there aren’t many librettos which feature such a droll question as Itch’s mother’s to him, following the chemical eruption, “where are your eyebrows?”. 

Like Humperdinck’s work, this opera also bears a moral: in this case about man’s relationship with the earth, and so serves as a timely comment upon the climate crisis – intriguingly so as the production opens in the same week as the new film about Robert Oppenheimer (also examining mankind’s manipulation of the earth’s elements) and as an alarming wave of extreme weather conditions has struck several corners of the globe. (And as if to remind us of the emergency, this performance was accompanied by continuous rainfall – not the first this July, and more than just an acceptable, sporadic shower we British are used to joking about our summers.)

Itch’s laudable schoolboy curiosity about chemical elements leads him to take possession of a strangely glowing and warm rock from his hipster friend Cake on the Cornish beach near a mine. He shows it to his science teachers at school, one of whom, Nathaniel Flowerdew, harbours sinister motives. As a disgraced former executive of a multinational energy company, Greencorps, he sees it as the means to insinuate his way back into favour with that organisation. When he discovers the rock’s radioactive properties, he contacts Greencorps’s head, Roshanna Wing, to launch a project to exploit what may be a new chemical element for commercial ends. It’s a charming feature of the production that the set centres on a cubic structure that mimics the Periodic Table. The scenes’ locations are identified by projections on to its panels of the relevant words, made up of anagrams of chemical symbols.

Whether coincidentally or not, the scenario bears a striking resemblance to that of the Ring – even if its purpose is more overtly to do with the environment than the political and social order so much. One also wonders whether Mayo had in mind for his books (essentially children’s stories) Anthony Burgess’s retelling of Wagner’s cycle in his withdrawn novel The Ring and the Worm, set in a school. Just as the ring passes hands through a series of violent, treacherous transactions, so there is an acrimonious battle for possession of the rock among the characters here (Flowerdew and Wing clearly correspond to Alberich and Hagen). Like the curse which the ring carries, so the rock is dangerously radioactive. And, as though echoing Waltraute’s advice to Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung, Cake urges the return of the rock to the mine from where it came, and Itch eventually returns it there, amidst its stony shafts and floods of water. Somewhat like an 18th century opera with its concluding moral clearly stated in a final coro by the assembled cast stepping outside of their roles, here the figures of the narrative appear on stage almost (albeit not quite) at the end to reiterate that imperative to return the rock. However, in a nice dramatic irony, it is not quite clear whether Wing, Flowerdew and Kinch endorse that out of their characters, like their Baroque operatic counterparts, or whether they speak as themselves so as to mean that the rock should be returned to them (having possessed it before) rather than to the mine, and can then continue their exploitative, self-enriching enterprise.

The libretto references James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, and it also seems more than coincidence that the other schoolteacher Watkins’s iterations of that significant word “Gaia” are set to a falling two-note figure very much like Wagner’s ‘Rheingold’ motif, though the harmonies are very different; in fact their resigned, valedictory mood with celesta in twinkling accompaniment rather recalls the repetitions of “ewig” at the very end of Das Lied von der Erde (again, perhaps deliberately?). In general, though, the musical style is entirely characteristic of Dove, if not exactly so motorically propulsive as usual. But he has a keen sense for the shifting dramatic episodes, well realised in the music. And, in what will quite probably and deservedly become a favourite extract from the opera, Itch’s catalogue aria, summarising the attributes of around twenty elements, expresses a captivating, lyrical awe at the mystery of the universe. There and elsewhere it seems remarkable that only twelve performers make up the instrumental accompaniment. Jessica Cottis’s account with the members of the City of London Sinfonia sustains an absolutely sure grip of the music that doesn’t simply accompany the sung text, but establishes a dynamic aura for each scene.

Dove also draws the characters’ different personalities assiduously in the score, and the cast generally do that justice. Adam Temple-Smith gives a thoughtful, searching account of the schoolboy Itch, while Natasha Agarwal as his sister, Jack, is blither. Eric Greene conveys a calm reassurance as their father, Nicholas, if lacking in tonal variety. Rebecca Bottone embodies a certain solid maternal authority as Jude, the mother; but she stands out in the almost hysterical persona of Greencorps’s boss, Roshanna, where the music’s darting, unpredictable line and stratospheric register holds no fear for her.

Nicholas Garrett eloquently captures Flowerdew’s impatient, scheming nature, in contrast with Victoria Simmonds’s soaring Watkins. As the rather withdrawn, unconventional Cake, James Laing rightly sounds otherworldly and unhampered, affording another compelling contrast with Rob Burt’s rough, boisterous energy for Evert, the mine’s owner, and Kinch, Flowerdew’s accomplice.

The opera may have its origins in stories for children, but it has just as much to say to adults. It’s an attractive piece – neither obscure nor facile – and doesn’t preach. It should, therefore, become at least as admired and often performed as Dove’s best-known opera to date, Flight – and arguably deserves to be more so, as the drama is tautly drawn and concerns a subject that affects us all, whether we like it or not.

Further performances to August 4

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