Intent as ever on dispelling the myth that it is ‘exclusive,’ Glyndebourne has premièred a daring, involving and spectacularly produced new opera in Imago. Composed by Orlando Gough, with a libretto by Stephen Plaice and designs by Es Devlin, it is directed with slick, energetic style by Susannah Walters and performed with absolute commitment by a huge cast, centred around five major characters.
The work’s protagonist is Elizabeth, a resident in a care home where her progressive therapist enables her to create an avatar, through whom she can re-live her youth. It’s such a relevant idea for our time that one wonders why no one else has done it before – obviously, the central exploration is of the emotional problems inherent in such a process. Anyone over the age of about 45 will have heard Wolf’s setting of the line ‘Macht mich auf ewig wieder jung!’ with a flood of recognition, so the subject also taps into a universal need.
The music is tuneful, light and undemanding, sometimes not quite sure whether it’s an opera or a musical, but no worse for that; it provides some characterful parts and offers many memorable ‘set pieces’ such as ‘A capella wedding’ and ‘Bass dance with me,’ the latter surely transporting many back to their teenage years. Es Devlin and Bronia Housman have designed a wonderful set for it, with many different levels suggesting by turns individual rooms and public spaces.
Elizabeth is sung by Jean Rigby, with all the emotional commitment, sensitivity of phrasing and richness of tone that we have come to expect from her; what a marvellous example she must have been to the younger singers around her. Her avatar, Lisette, is the bright-voiced Joanna Songi, who made a strong impression here with her Flora in The Turn of the Screw, and the therapist is sung by the always reliable Daniel Norman, investing his lines with heroic tone. Adam Gilbert and James Brock are both extremely promising youthful singers who play the young men involved in Elizabeth/Lisette’s story, and there are strong performances from a huge cast of ‘amateurs’ from about eight to eighty years old.
The orchestra, under the enthusiastic direction of Nicholas Collon, is similarly made up of a core of professional musicians (from Aurora Orchestra) together with ‘amateurs’ who play with great commitment. The demands of accompanying such a large and diverse cast must have been considerable, and it’s greatly to the credit of the players and Nicholas Collon that the whole enterprise seemed as natural as anything one might hear at the Coliseum.
In keeping with Glyndebourne’s long history of presenting community opera and the declared aim of its Education department to “get as diverse a group of people as possible to connect with opera,” they will be offering free streaming of Imago as a part of European Opera Days – you can watch it on the Glyndebourne website across the weekend of May 11th and 12th, so even if you missed the ‘live’ performances, you can catch up with this vibrant new work online – perhaps an even more appropriate way to experience a piece which deals with the connections between the ‘real’ world and cyberspace.