LONDON: Coraline
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Royal Opera | Barbican Theatre

In Review Coraline Royal Opera Hdl 618
Gillian Keith, Mary Bevan and Frances McCafferty in Coraline at the Barbican
© ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

MARK-ANTHONY TURNAGE, one of the U.K.’s most admired composers, turns fifty-eight this year. His opera output began with a hit—the contemporary classic Greek (1988), based on playwright Steven Berkoff’s scabrous version of the Oedipus myth, set in modern times in the East End of London. Thus far, none of Turnage’s later operas has achieved an enduring success, though Twice through the Heart (1997), a sometimes-staged song cycle about domestic violence, has done better than either The Silver Tassie (2000), drawn from an unsatisfactory play by Sean O’Casey, or Anna Nicole (2011), a glitzy account of the life and death of the American model Anna Nicole Smith. (The Country of the Blind, based on a short story by H. G. Wells, was withdrawn by the composer himself not long after its 1997 premiere.)

Turnage’s latest work for the lyric stage, Coraline (seen March 29), sets off in a new direction. Based on a multi-award-winning 2002 children’s fantasy novella of the same name by Neil Gaiman, Coraline was also turned into an animated 3D film in 2009. Playwright Rory Mullarkey adapted Gaiman’s text for Turnage’s libretto. 

Coraline tells the story of an eleven-year-old girl who enters a mysterious next-door apartment through a theoretically bricked-up door to discover a sinister mirror image of her own family home, occupied by another mother and another father—like her own but with black-button eyes. Finding herself in increasing danger, she draws on her intelligence and bravery to escape, taking with her her now-imprisoned real parents while also freeing some ghostly children. Coraline conveys elements of a classic fairy-tale within an ambience combining the everyday with the dark and the comic-grotesque. 

It’s an appealing and potent mix, brilliantly presented in Aletta Collins’s sharply drawn production at the Barbican Theatre. Giles Cadle’s characterful sets employ a revolve to switch effortlessly between one flat and another, including those occupied by Coraline’s other neighbors, a pair of retired actresses, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, wittily sung and acted by soprano Gillian Keith and mezzo Frances McCafferty, and the elderly Lithuanian Mr. Bobo, amiably personified by Harry Nicoll, with his orchestra of musical mice.

Soprano Mary Bevan had the unenviable task of creating the eleven-year-old title character; her physical mannerisms fell short of the ideally childlike, but her clean, confident singing worked a treat. She was expertly matched by mezzo Kitty Whately and baritone Alexander Robin Baker, as her two sets of parents. 

Turnage’s score is admirable in its refusal to settle for eager-to-please options, but there are places in the piece in which something more striking was needed. The show also felt long, with some of Act II’s plot detail surplus to requirements. Yet the children in the audience on March 29—many of them surely Gaiman aficionados—were held by the piece’s broad fidelity to its source as well as its clever and at times magical staging. With the Britten Sinfonia in the pit, Sian Edwards conducted an exemplary performance. The piece has a good deal going for it.  —George Hall 

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