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Seen and Heard Opera Review
ETO in Exeter (I) Jonathan Dove: Tobias and the Angel, Soloists & Choruses, English Touring Opera Orchestra, Tim Murray (conductor) St. David's Church Exeter, November 6th 2004 (BK)
Tobit: Richard Burkhard (baritone)
Raguel's men: Laurence Cole, Ørjan Hartveit, Jake White
Adult Chorus: Northcott Theatre Group Chorus
English Touring Opera Orchestra : Tim Murray Conductor
It happens however, that Jonathan Dove's 1999 delightful church opera Tobias and the Angel (a joint production with the Young Vic in this tour) is a particularly good choice for the popularisation that the government wishes to see. It's short, tuneful and has an interesting plot but it's also full of the spectacle that opera can provide. With a substantial cast of professional soloists, as well as built-in participation by local community groups, as an introduction to what opera can do Tobias can hardly be bettered. It doesn’t ‘dumb down’ at all; and it’s well crafted enough for more seasoned audiences. It’s engaging, it’s memorable… it’s a great night out.
David Lan’s libretto is from the biblical (actually apocryphal) ‘Book of Tobit’. Set during the Jewish exile in Babylonian Nineveh, the text explores the great themes of religious and racial persecution, family tensions, friendship and love. Political and financial corruption is contrasted with the life of the spirit and the getting of wisdom. It has rightly been called a modern Magic Flute.
The story tells how humans and the angel Raphael struggle against successive malign forces: some sparrows, a giant fish and a demon. Tobit is blinded by sparrow faeces after breaking the law to give a decent burial to someone who has been killed on the orders of the Babylonian King. He sends his son Tobias, to distant Ecbatana to reclaim a longstanding debt from his cousin Raguel. The Angel accompanies Tobias on the journey, opens his mind to the ‘songs’ or wonders of the world and helps him escape attacks by the fish and the demon.
To avoid settling his debt, the wily Raguel encourages Tobias to marry his daughter Sara, an unfortunate woman whose seven former husbands have all been killed by the demon Ashmodeus. With the Angel’s help, Tobias ultimately kills Ashmodeus and he and Sara fall deeply in love. Sara persuades her father to repay his debt and the young couple return to Tobias’ parents. Through a combination of developing wisdom and the Angel’s guidance, Tobias restores his father’s sight.
Jonathan Dove’s music is very appealing, more immediately melodic and more humorous perhaps than in Flight, but always thoughtfully constructed with transparent orchestration, eminently singable lines for the soloists, and some complex and memorable set pieces for two sizeable adult choruses and a children’s choir. Aspects of the score resonate with Britten (naturally enough given both setting and subject) and with shades of John Adams, Bernstein (Chichester Psalms) and with Klezmer. It all fits together nicely into a seamlessly integrated whole and contains much innovative music of considerable beauty, especially for the counter-tenor Angel. I should be more than happy to hear it again.
Alexander Lowde’s simple set has Tobit’s tent on one side of a small raised stage with Raguel’s house on the other. A long ladder runs up the front of the house upon which the demon perches menacingly and a narrow balcony representing Sara’s bed chamber protrudes securely (but also precipitously so that the singers look as though they need danger money) from the upper storey. Matthew Haskin’s lighting plot compliments the set sensitively to provide the many changes of mood and spectacle required by the action.
The stage dictum, ‘Never work with children or animals,' was properly exploded in this production by James Fullford’s careful direction. Cramming two adult choruses, twenty pupils from a local school, the singers and the Chinese Dragon – like fish into a confined space can’t have been easy. Getting them to sing, dance and run up and down the aisles without killing each other took real skill. ‘Music and movement’ was never like this when I was a mixed infant, that’s for sure.
Tim Murray handled the music with equal care, drawing fine tuneful singing from the professionals and the largely amateur choruses. The Newton Poppleford children were particularly good under his guidance, with not a note out of place and a wonderful controlled spontaneity throughout their substantial contributions. If some of them aren’t confirmed opera buffs after this experience, I should be very surprised.
Without exception the adult singers were all on good form too with particularly fine liquid counter-tenor singing from James Laing (the Angel) and vibrant mezzo tone from Serena Kay (Sara). Both of them were announced as being unwell before the performance but it certainly didn’t show.
ETO return to Exeter in two week’s time with The Cunning Little Vixen and La Bohème