Opera Review

ZOË: An Opera in Four Acts by John Lunn & Stephen Plaice Commissioned by and first performed at Glyndebourne: March 1, 2000

It has frequently struck me as something of a paradox that whilst opera audiences consist, virtually exclusively, of 'older' people, much of the standard operatic canon being presented and enjoyed by the same was often produced by the very young: Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Bizet et al spring to mind. Even a comparatively late starter like Verdi had composed fourteen of his operas by the time he was 35.

That said, especially at an operatic bastion like John Christie's estate in the Sussex countryside, a predominantly young audience and opera are not the easiest of bedfellows, as Stephen Plaice, the librettist of Glyndebourne's enterprising new opera for young people, Zoë, writes: "At first glance, an opera for teenagers might seem like a contradiction in terms. The received notion is that opera is for buffs, people of refined, mature sensibilities, who do not want to find a teenager sitting beside them in the opera-house in a sweaty singlet and trainers."

Three years ago in 1997, television scriptwriter Plaice and music theatre and film composer John Lunn started redressing the balance with an exciting and thriller-formatted children's opera called Misper. Now, specifically catering for the disillusioned late teen's generation, they have gone one better with Zoë. On the page the synopsis seems tortuous, to say the least: film actress Sophie Lavalle returns to England from Hollywood and consults a private investigator in order to try and track down her lost daughter; meanwhile, new girl Zoë arrives at Adambridge Sixth Form College, enrols in a film studies class and joins a teenage band. And that's only the beginning. It transpires that Zoe's father is a bio-technologist and she is in fact none other than a clone of Sophie Lavalle, one-time idol of her Dr Frankensteinian 'father'.

But all this potentially convoluted storyline (and much more) is economically expressed by Plaice's swift-moving libretto (one can certainly tell that this man has written for television). Equally, Lunn's enchanting and very busy score keeps up the filmic momentum and undercurrents with a dazzling series of set pieces which healthily allude to soundworlds like Bernstein's and Adams's, on the one hand; and up-to-the-minute hip-hop, rap and sampling devices on the other. But with libretto and score alike, nothing ever outstays its welcome. The results are a gripping contemporary fable, pithily told and highly enjoyable in both its narrative drive and pacing.

Plus, the entire concoction is certainly helped by a snappy and high-tech staging. To make an invidious comparison: two summers ago, at Glyndebourne's Festival, top-seat paying punters forked out £110 to see Graham Vick's deconstructionist Cosi fan tutte set in an empty rehearsal room with two radiators for decor. In Zoë, for £10, a revolving stage, multiple sets and cinematic projection all demonstrate just what the new Glyndebourne theatre is capable of. But it isn't of course just the stage machinery which keeps the show going. Conor Murphy has provided eye-catching and up-to-the designs; Keith Benson's lighting lavishly creates the film noir subtext; Vanessa Gray's choreography brims with style and invention; and director Stephen Langridge keeps the young cast on their toes too with some smart stage movement and probing psychological interactions.

In fact that young cast is drawn from a Youth Opera Group which meets regularly and, in terms of teamwork, it shows. A hard-worked chorus of 36 are fronted by some well-characterised and well-sung individual performances, from: Daniel Gill as Felix, Gemma Ticehurst as JoJo, Rebecca Bowden as Gemma, Mark Entiknap as Luke and Emily Gilchrist especially, in the long and arduous title role of Zoë. Four adult professional singers have to show their mettle to compete on equal terms: Geoffrey Dolton as the Private Detective, Fiona Campbell as Sophie Lavalle, Richard Coxon as manipulative teacher Mr Traherne, and Jonathan Veira as the geneticist Dr Herkomer. Add further first-rate musicianship in the pit from a sharp-sounding Brighton Youth Orchestra, tautly conducted by James Morgan, and Zoë scores in that department too.

Reviewing and applauding this considerable achievement of a new youth opera in The Times, Richard Morrison calls out for a TV production. I'd like to see a revival as part of a future summer season: the very catchy opening number after the interval - 'You're Never Alone With A Clone' - would go down a storm after anyone's champagne picnic.

Duncan Hadfield

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