Michael Tippett wrote the oratorio A Child Of Our Time in response to an episode in 1938, when a 17-year old Polish Jew shot a German diplomat in revenge for Nazi persecution of his family. The terrible retribution was the Kristallnacht pogrom, during which hundreds of Jews were killed. First performed in 1944, and now staged for the very first time as part of a celebration of Tippett’s 100th anniversary, the tragedy is that it seems just as relevant today as during the Second World War.
Indeed, during the opening chorus, as the light gradually increases on what seems to be a bare, grey stage and a pile of bodies becomes visible, the mind inevitably leaps not just to visions of Auschwitz but more recent horrors, both man made and natural. When pale faces rise from the bodies it is almost as if the dead are speaking to us.
One has to ask, however, whether this is a work that should be staged. The music, poignant and delicate, and using Negro spirituals at key moments, is beautiful. Tippett’s habit of using the human voice as an instrument is fine in the concert hall but in the vast space of the Coliseum means that most words are inaudible (with the marked exception of the bass-baritone, Brindley Sherratt, of whom more later).
The biggest problem though is that if you stage an oratorio, you have to find things for the chorus to do, and if you’re not very careful this can detract rather than add to the performance.
Jonathan Kent, former artistic director of the Almeida Theatre, succeeds better in some areas than others. This is his ENO debut and he seems to have got a bit carried away with the technical opportunities the Coliseum offers, using so many trap doors – they appear and disappear all over the stage – that it becomes a bit of a joke predicting where the next one will be. The dozens of implements of torture that descend on strings are OK, and make some sort of a point, but why do they disappear into holes (each has its own personal trap door…) only to re-emerge as light bulbs? If this is the triumph of light over darkness it’s a bit early in the oratorio.
Towards the end of the piece spring is appearing, the mood is one of redemption and hope, the chorus retrieves squares of green turf from (where else) the trapdoors and this gives us the first colour in the whole production – a good theatrical touch. A small tree emerges from the ground but instead of bursting into leaf, as one might expect in spring, it bursts (noisily) into flames. Why? This seemed to contradict the final words of the libretto – “Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope / The moving waters renew the earth. It is spring.”
In general the bleak, difficult subject matter is handled sensitively, however, and there are genuinely moving moments, notably the death of the boy and the grieving of his mother. The protagonists are played by actors but sung by the four soloists. The boy is tenor Timothy Robinson, who after a shaky start when his voice seemed very harsh settled down well; Susan Gritton (soprano) floated some beautiful notes as his mother; Sara Fulgoni (contralto) was good tonally but her diction terrible – not an audible word. Oh, for surtitles…
The star soloist was the aforementioned Brindley Sherratt, singing as “bass” but with a wide range, a creamy voice and perfect clarity (so it can be done). As the narrator he has a pivotal role and certainly helped to pull the production together. He is surely destined for major roles. The ENO chorus was on form, and conductor Martyn Brabbins did a fine job in the pit with the ever-reliable ENO orchestra.
The house was sold out – I have never seen so many standing-room places allowed at the Coliseum – perhaps because there are only to be two performances. The warm reception of the audience suggests that ENO may well bring this production back, and if so it’s worth catching, even if you may get more from it if you rest your eyes from time to time.