Raising Icarus Barber Opera review


Barber Opera at Birmingham Repertory Theatre ***

Founded in the late 1950s by the great Anthony Lewis, the Barber Operas rapidly became touchstones of quality performances of baroque opera (Scarlatti, Rameau, and above all, Handel) featuring singers clearly rising to the top of the tree, Janet Baker just one example. As an undergraduate at Birmingham University in the late 1960s it was my privilege to be involved in these productions in the Barber Institute's jewel of a theatre, whether as chorister, stage-hand, or indeed orchestral player. Wonderful indelible memories were made.
Time and financial constraints have moved things on. After several fallow years (not just because of Covid), the Barber Opera has resurrected, but now in the functional Studio at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and with the premiere of a chamber opera by one of the University's own composers, Michael Zev Gordon.
"Raising Icarus" is a punning title, referring not only to the well-known story of the young man flying too close to the sun, but also the pushy way in which he is reared by his ambitious father, Daedalus. We begin with a forging scene in Daedalus' smithy, move to Knossos, where Daedalus has built a cow-machine which spreadeagles Queen Pasiphae whenever she desires servicing by a bull (this extended scene is gratuitously disgusting, and I am amazed that the excellent Galina Averina agreed to go through such writhings, Orpha Phelan directing), and we end with Daedalus and Icarus' escape from the labyrinth they have been forced to create in order to hide the hideous offspring – and Icarus falls to his death.
But that leads to an ending which goes on and on, Stephen Plaice's arcane, bookish libretto trying our patience to the limit, but admittedly drawing magical colours from Gordon's neat little chamber ensemble as things gradually – oh, so gradually! – wind down.
The composer writes deftly for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (a particularly telling accordion), and Natalie Murray Beale conducts with clarity and commitment. But Gordon's vocal writing seems dictated to by the wordy libretto, and towards the end resorts too frequently to frustrated falsetto in the men's writing.
This is a compact, serviceable chamber opera, and its cast here (James Cleverton, Margo Arsane, Andrew Slater, Galina Averina, Lucy Schaufer and William Morgan) worked with commendable team spirit. Madeleine Boyd's set designs are simple, minimalist and totally effective. But the whole enterprise, far from flying close to the sun, is weighed down by the verbosity of the libretto.
Christopher Morley

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