The Opera Group presents Luke Bedford’s Seven Angels at Linbury Studio Theatre

Luke Bedford
Seven Angels – chamber opera in two acts to a libretto by Glyn Maxwell

Angel 1 / Waitress – Rhona McKail
Angel 2 / Queen – Emma Selway
Angel 3 / Chef / Priestess – Louise Mott
Angel 4 / Prince – Christopher Lemmings
Angel 5 / Porter / Industrialist – Joseph Shovelton
Angel 6 / Gardener / General – Owen Gilhooly
Angel 7 / King – Keel Watson

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Nicholas Collon

John Fulljames – Director
Tadasu Takamine – Designer
Jon Clark – Lighting Designer
Ian William Galloway – Projection Designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 12 July, 2011
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Luke Bedford’s first opera, Seven Angels, has come to London for three performances at the Linbury Studio Theatre. Bedford’s star has been on the rise consistently during the past decade, on the back of works such as Rode with Darkness and Or voit tout en aventure, so you might reasonably have thought he would be a natural for opera, but Seven Angels isn’t in that league.

Like Rode with Darkness, the opera springs from Bedford’s passion for John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Seven angels, forgotten by God and by Satan, and unobserved by Milton, have fallen to Earth. Our garden planet is now a desert, represented by tottering piles of books (about as many as could fit on a Kindle should BCMG and Opera Group ever consider doing a reduced version). The angels re-enact humanity’s sorry ejection from Eden to sterile emptiness by playing the roles – king, queen, prince, cook, gardener, servant – of those whose greed, fear and selfishness have resulted in catastrophe for Earth. In terms of dystopian vision about the end of days, there’s nothing here that isn’t familiar from any number of sci-fi and fantasy films, but the opera lacks the punch and sense of identity to convey this in words and music.

Glyn Maxwell’s libretto is far too portentous, full of repetition and alliteration, as it aspires to Miltonesque grandeur, and the music sounds inhibited by it. The predominantly dark orchestral writing and declamatory vocal lines are perfectly serviceable, but unmemorable. Angels, Milton, doom – operatic opportunities don’t come much thicker or faster, but Bedford and Maxwell have delivered an annoyingly hand-wringing, PC eco-opera, couched in a creaking theatre-of-the-absurd style that in the end is just a touch patronising. “All a poet can do today is warn” is the Wilfred Owen line attached to the score of Britten’s War Requiem. Sure, Seven Angels certainly does that, but as with many a passionate activist, the hectoring tone has limited interest. I wonder how it will fare with the middle-class, middle-aged, left-of-centre, Radio 4-articulate Latitude Festival crowd in Suffolk this Saturday (July 16).

The seven singers worked hard with their similar roles and music, all of them wearing terrible, unflattering shell-suit-like leisure wear. The Prince angel (Christopher Lemmings) and the waitress angel (Rhona McKail) got the nearest to being sympathetic and dramatic, with feistily anguished support from Keel Watson (King), Emma Selway (his Queen) and Owen Gilhooly as the Gardener, all of them enunciating the words clearly. In line with the costumes, the direction is exaggerated and cartoon-like. The set design of books and pop-up trees and plants worked fine, and the back projection of Milton’s text disintegrating into meaningless individual letters, the detritus of a wasted civilisation, swirling about in the wind, was genuinely poetic and moving – you could watch it for hours. Nicholas Collon and the excellent BCMG players provided the necessary tension and pace to keep things on the move.

Mind you, anything that directs you back to Milton can’t be all bad.

  • Further performances at Linbury Studio Theatre on July 14 & 15 at 7.45 p.m.

  • Royal Opera House

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