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
John Fulljames – Director
Tadasu Takamine – Designer
Jon Clark – Lighting Designer
Ian William Galloway – Projection Designer
Reviewed by: Rian Evans
Reviewed: 20 June, 2011
Venue: Bute Theatre, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff
On paper it seemed a heaven-sent subject – for Seven Angels, a joint commission by The Opera Group and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Basing a libretto on John Milton’s Paradise Lost and examining how mankind must face up to the wanton destruction of its own Garden of Eden is bold and exciting, but the great disappointment of Seven Angels is that it fails to engage on any meaningful level. Neither Glyn Maxwell’s words nor Luke Bedford’s music reach out to the listener in a way that permits the suspension of disbelief, let alone the feeling of identification with the characters. Such a vital issue as the environment had the potential for a truly inspirational piece, but this two-act opera (first performed on 17 June at CBSO Centre) falls well short.
Falling is the operative word. The seven characters of the piece are angels who’ve fallen through space and time and crash-landed in a desert landscape, where once a legendary garden flourished. Taking on seven different human personae, with each individual story told in sequence, they re-enact the way in which man’s greed and neglect has depleted the garden’s resources. The scale of the present threat to our planet is unarguable and it is absolutely right that opera should be used as a medium for the artistic exploration of such questions, with all the philosophical and moral perspectives that will necessarily be invoked. Communicating such ideas through art can be infinitely powerful, so Seven Angels should have been a salutary experience, a call to arms and action, even. In reality, just following what was going on proved hard work. The narrative is patchy and, with the laborious repetitions of words and phrases infinitely tedious, any sense of flow was sadly lacking.
Tadasu Takamine’s single rectangular set was covered with books, symbolic presumably of the garden of knowledge, with one vast tome opening up to give first a white-paper origami tree and later a ravaged; its ten branches could also be read as two hands held up in desperate supplication. The overall theme also saw pages of words and tumbling letters seen on a wide screen high at the back of the stage above the instrumental ensemble. John Fulljames enterprisingly managed to find a thousand things his cast could do with books, not worth enumerating here but, while it is rare that one is reduced to relying on the distraction of stage business, one must concede that here the books served their purpose.
One might have hoped that Bedford’s score would offer stimulus of its own or indeed respite from the inadequacies of the libretto, but that never really happened. While there were elegantly crafted textures and some beguiling sounds from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group – in particular the darkly expressive writing for viola and also alto flute – there seemed to be a disjunction between voices and instruments and no real sense of the latter reinforcing the action, such as it was. Some characterisations were stronger than others, notably Keel Watson as the King, Louise Mott who sang the role of Chef and also Priestess, and Owen Gilhooly as Gardener and later the General. But when they made lines sound eloquent, the effect was somehow only tantalising. To Nicholas Collon goes the credit for keeping things moving, just about.
Not an uplifting experience then or one which connected with the senses. Only the last scene where the chef and the prince find love, and opened up some of the scattered books to reveal water-lily-like lights did we get something resembling an iconic image. Ironic then that the other striking effect – when rows and rows of books fell like dominoes, suggesting the collapse of the world as we know it – happened very early on; it might just have well have stood for the early and irretrievable demise of the opera. Great things were expected of Luke Bedford whose scores hitherto have met with such acclaim. Perhaps it is too soon to suggest that the music of Seven Angels might emerge more convincingly were it to be encapsulated in concert form, but it is hard to see this as an important work of our time.