Monday 25 February 2019

Trapped in the underworld with a surly teenager: Gavin Higgins & Francesca Simon's The Monstrous Child

 Gavin Higgins: The Monstrous Child - Royal Opera (© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey)
Gavin Higgins: The Monstrous Child - Royal Opera (© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey)
Gavin Higgins The Monstrous Child; Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Rosie Aldridge, Tom Randle, Lucy Schaufer, Graeme Broadbent, Dan Shelvey, dir: Timothy Sheader, Aurora Orchestra, cond: Jessica Cottis; Linbury Thaatre, Royal Opera House Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 February 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A brilliant musical re-imagining of Norse myth in a first opera, in a strikinginly visual production

Gavin Higgins: The Monstrous Child - Marta Fontanals-Simmons - Royal Opera (© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey)
Marta Fontanals-Simmons
(© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey)
The Royal Opera has followed up Mark-Anthony Turnage's opera Coraline [see Anthony's review on this blog], based on a children's novel by Neil Gaiman, with another opera based upon a children's book, thus creating a rather interesting vein of intelligent contemporary opera with an attraction for family and young adult audiences.

Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child, the first opera at the Royal Opera House's re-vamped Linbury Theatre (seen Sunday 24 February 2019), has a libretto by Francesca Simon (author of the Horrid Henry books) based on her novel for teenagers of the same name. The fact that Turnage and Higgins' operas are both based on children's novels seems to be serendipitous [see my interview with Gavin Higgins], but certainly the audience on Sunday seemed to have a more than a fair smattering of children in the audience. And, judging by the reaction of the children around me the opera seems to have hit the right spot.

Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child, with a libretto by Francesca Simon, was directed by Timothy Sheader with Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Hel, Tom Randle as Loki, Lucy Schaufer as  Modgud, Rosie Aldridge as Angrboda, Dan Shelvey as Baldr, Graeme Broadbent as Odin and Elizabeth Karani as Nanna/Thora, with actors/puppeteers Laura Caldow and Stuart Angell. Designs were by Paul Wills with lighting by Howard Hudson, movement by Josie Daxter, video by Ian William Galloway and sound design by Sound Intermedia. Jessica Cottis conducted the Aurora Orchestra.

The story is a re-working of the Norse myth, where Hel is the Queen of the Underworld, half-goddess/half-dead child of the god Loki she is banished there by the Gods following a prophecy that she and her brothers will bring the end of the world. Hel's passion for the Baldr (the only one of the gods to be nice to her) brings things to a head when Baldr dies and enters the underworld. Francesca Simon's clever novel re-imagines Hel as a sulky teenager, and her libretto successfully transfers Hel's distinctive voice into opera. The fact that the teenager uses a lot of one-liners is surely a benefit a composer. A first-time librettist, Simon has successfully created a libretto which allowed plenty of space for Higgins' music.

Gavin Higgins: The Monstrous Child - Marta Fontanals-Simmons - Royal Opera (© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey)
Marta Fontanals-Simmons & her puppet self
(© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey)
Higgins peoples this with a richly imagined sound world, conjuring vivid and dramatic sounds from his orchestra of just ten players (including keyboards), and whilst the story might be based on a book aimed at teenagers and be about a teenager, there was no sense of Higgins writing down in his music. This was tough, dramatic stuff with plenty of expressionist vocal lines, and imaginatively clotted harmonies and dissonances in the orchestra. But the richly imagined sound-world complemented and extended the drama brilliantly.

The first half was expository, we encounter Hel (Marta Fontanals-Simmons) in the underworld and she greets us, the newly arrived dead, and tells us her story. Using instrumental interludes and scenes of flash-back, we learn what has happened. Here, the sheer imagination of Sheader's production complemented Higgins music, as singers, actors and puppets mixed to tell the story, so that Rosie Aldridge as the giantess Angrboda (Hel's mother) is embedded in a huge puppet which she manipulated as she gave birth to her monstrous set of (puppet) triplets (the wolf, the snake and the half-goddess/half-human).

Then for most of this act, as Marta Fontanals-Simmons narrated to us from one corner of the stage, her upper half embedded in a huge lump of rotting substance rather like a character from a Beckett play, we saw a puppet as the engaging young Hel enacting the scenes from her eventful life. The act concluded with the death of Baldr (Dan Shelvey) and Hel's anticipation of his entry into the underworld and the consumation of their mutual passion.

Gavin Higgins: The Monstrous Child - Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Dan Shelvey  - Royal Opera (© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey)
Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Dan Shelvey (© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey)
Of course, no such thing happens. Baldr is not consumed with passion for Hel, he was simply nice to her as a child, and as a result Hel refuses to let Baldr return to the gods. This cues the End of Days, and part of the opera's brilliance was that this all happens elsewhere, with its off-stage chorus and horn calls it was as if Wagner's Twilight of the Gods was playing in another room and we were left, all alone, with a sulky teenager. The end, with Hel the only survivor of the gods, provided an element of growth, self-knowledge and transfiguration without being ridiculously upbeat.

Much of the opera was in the form of narrative from Marta Fontanals-Simmons and she was very striking in the way that she created the strong sense of Hel the surly, emotional and needy teenager, particularly as Fontanals-Simmons range of movement was inevitably limited. With her green hair and nose ring, her upper half was pure goth. Despite the strength and richness of Higgins' orchestration, he ensured that the vocal lines were clear so that Fontanals-Simmons got a remarkable amount of Hel's text across (there were no surtitles). Higgins vocal lines were varied and imaginative, highly expressive as expressionist arioso, and combined with his dramatic ear for the orchestra into something rather striking.

The other roles were relatively small, but each singer had their moment and they played multiple small roles and combined with the two actors to create a company which did everything. Rose Aldridge was a great delight as the giantess, giving birth to monsters with Tom Randle as a wonderfully disengaged father, Loki. Graeme Broadbent made the most of his appearances as Odin, particularly the moment in Act Two when he comes to the underworld to plead with Hel for Baldr and shocked and powerless when she refuses. Dan Shelvey made an apposite Baldr, tall and personable, yet completely oblivious to the effect he is having on Hel. Lucy Schaufer was the giantess who guards the bridge into the underworld, forming something of a confidante to Hel, and Schaufer brilliantly incarnated the delightful naivety of someone who has no experience of human emotion. Elizabeth Karani provided strong support in a pair of soprano roles.

Tim Sheader and Paul Wills brought great imagination to the production, the basic set was simply a box on which Ian William Galloway's videos played out, starting with the image of Hel's endless repetitions of carving her own name into the walls, and from then on adding immensely to the atmosphere. The puppets were also rather beautifully done, with the child Hel having a real personality. Throughout the performance huge blocks of ice dripped from the flies, a metaphor for time passing and the coming of the end, and for the End of Days a group of figures attacked them with fire and pickaxes, a very striking image to complement Higgins' music.

Gavin Higgins: The Monstrous Child - Royal Opera (© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey)
Gavin Higgins: The Monstrous Child - the gods in Asgard - Royal Opera (© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey)
In the pit, Jessica Cottis drew a striking sound-world from the players of the Aurora Orchestra and it was sometimes difficult to believe that there were only 18 of them.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons' superb performance helped disguise the fact that the first act (which is over an hour) relied a little to much on first-person narrative from Hel (perhaps inevitable given the book's first person narrative style), though Simon and Higgins did much to break this up. And it would have perhaps helped if Fontanals-Simmons had initially been placed down-stage rather than far away up stage.

As I mentioned, Higgins' vocal lines were varied and expressive in an expressionist way, yet just occasionally I would have liked, if not a tune then an ear-worm or two. Though perhaps we must accept that the music was often subservient to the words here, and certainly Higgins writing allowed Simon's text to come through brilliantly.

This was a first opera for both Gavin Higgins' and Francesca Simon, and though Timothy Sheader''s richly production was brilliantly theatrical, and had the benefit of Royal Opera House resources, there was no doubting that the fundamental musico-dramatic structure was richly expressive and superbly imagined. I look forward to hearing what Higgins and Simon do next.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Contemporary yet romantic: Noah Mosley's Aurora debuts at Bury Court Opera's swansong season (★★★½) - opera review
  • The idea of bringing to life something which has never been alive before: my interview with conductor Jessica Cottis - interview
  • Britten & Mendelssohn violin concertos from Sebastian Bohren & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (★★) - CD review
  • The full Egmont: Beethoven's incidental music linked by extracts of Goethe's play (★★★½) - CD review
  • Sweeter than Roses: music of Purcell & his contemporaries from Anna Dennis & Sounds Baroque  - (★★) CD review
  • Sung Poetry: Kitty Whately & Simon Lepper - From the Pens of Women (★★) - concert review
  • Choral music for Advent and Christmas from Portsmouth  - CD review
  • Love songs in Temple Church: Brahms and Schumann for Valentine's Day (★★★½) - concert review
  • An obsession with Norse myths: composer Gavin Higgins introduces his new opera The Monstrous Child  - interview
  • Delightful harmonies: Carl Czerny's arrangement of Beethoven's Septet (★★) - concert review
  • Verdi in Oman: La traviata at the Royal Opera House, Muscat (★★) - opera review
  • Home

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