Parthenogenesis – An opera in one act to a libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts

Bruno – Stephan Loges
Kristel – Amy Freston
Anna – Charlotte Roach
Nurse – Sian Clifford

Britten Sinfonia
James MacMillan

Katie Mitchell – Director
Vicki Mortimer – Designs
Lucy Carter – Lighting
Gareth Fry – Sound

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 11 June, 2009
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

“Parthenogenesis” is based on an astonishing true story: that of a woman caught up in a bombing raid in Hannover during World War Two. She was thrown to the floor and received minor injuries. Several months later she gave birth to a daughter with identical fingerprints and blood type. The woman insisted she had not had sex. Medical tests seemed to back up this claim. Doctors speculated that the shock of the bomb might have triggered parthenogenesis – non-sexual reproduction.

James MacMillan’s short opera (50 minutes) takes this tale as its template and uses it to contemplate on genetic engineering and cloning. In MacMillan and librettist Michael Symmons Roberts’s story, the drama centres around a young woman, Anna, who is dying of ovarian cancer. In her hospital bed she dreams of a meeting between her mother, Kristel, and a fallen angel, Bruno. He informs Kristel that she will give birth to a child who will have no father. MacMillan is keen to point out that this is no updated version of the Annunciation but rather the flip-side of it, in a sense. For this is a virgin-birth born out of violence, not a divine visitation. Bruno is no Gabriel-like figure, but in love with Kristel and the world.

For the simple set, Vicki Mortimer and Katie Mitchell have placed Anna in her hospital-bed centre-stage; Bruno frames her on one side and Kristel on the other. Only near the end does Bruno cross the stage – to embrace Kristel and declare his love.

MacMillan has constructed an uncomfortable score of extremes, in turns screeching in its dissonant and at times, in the case of Kristel, movingly lyrical. Anna’s reflections are spoken and she is served by a soundworld of unsettling ambient rumblings.

The problems arise out of the libretto and the production. Sung in English but without surtitles, Michael Symmons Roberts’s libretto is at times difficult to follow. His text is largely symbolic and of what could be heard clearly was fairly difficult to decipher rendering the pivotal exchanges between Kristel and Bruno largely unmoving and non-involving. For a work that pitches itself so high and wide in its examination of moral and ethical issues, the text seems to be scratching at the surface.

There are committed performances – especially from Amy Freston, secure in the demanding writing. The 13-strong Britten Sinfonia, conducted by the composer, captures the musical extremes superbly, creating a huge swathe of sound.

  • Further performances on 13, 15, 17 & 18 June at 8 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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