Bird of Night, the Royal Opera’s first commissioned work by a female composer, is a gentle and charming tale based on Caribbean folk poetry. The production, brilliantly staged by Irina Brown, is full of unexpected visual delights and the cast is uniformly excellent. Former Young Artist Yuval Zorn conducts an accomplished performance by the Britten Sinfonia.
Apolline is a young girl living in a fishing village in the Caribbean. It’s the early 1950s. She dreams of becoming a bird of the night and flying to the stars like her beloved godmother Nen-Nen. With the help of her evil aunt, consort of the devil, she fulfils the dream but at a cost.
The language is rich – some of the lyrics are in Créole and some in Trinidad dialect (“The boy he dead. Where you was?”). There is much imagery of zombies, vampires and spirits of dead unbaptised babies who drag children into the forest, as well as people transforming themselves into fantastical birds to soar above the mundane.
The opera was developed from a twenty minute piece that Dominique Le Gendre wrote three years ago as part of the NITRO project, in which nine black British composers experimented with operatic writing. The Royal Opera then commissioned her to write a full-length version and put her together with Paul Bentley, who has a track record of successful opera libretti including The Handmaid’s Tale for Poul Ruders, staged at the ENO a couple of years ago.
The director, Russian Irina Brown, has realised the magical story of fifteen year old Apolline’s flights of fancy and struggles with the powers of darkness wonderfully. There are some truly striking tableaux on Rae Smith‘s beautiful sets, with the help of highly imaginative lighting by Chris Davey and exciting choreography by Cathy Marston.
The performances are terrific. Betsabée Haas, in her Royal Opera debut, is very endearing as Apolline, singing with an appealing French accent. As her godmother Nen-Nen and mother Justine, Andrea Baker and Jacqueline Miura are both strong and sympathetic. The latter is very moving in the scene where she gives up Apolline to the evil Diego in order to save her other children, a highlight of the whole production both musically and dramatically.
Paul Whelan is excellent in the double roles of Ti-Jo, Apolline’s father, and Papa Bois, the old man of the woods, despite a throat infection on the first night. Liora Grodnikaite, in a series of slinky dresses, is a towering presence as the sexy but bad-for-you Tanty Désirée. Richard Coxon is an amusing if not demonic enough Diego, who drinks blood mixed with chocolate in a special mass to his master, the devil.
With so much good about Bird of Night, why isn’t it ultimately satisfying? I have to say that it’s down to the music. There’s nothing bad about the writing at all. It’s always attractive with some great percussive effects and delightful sounds from the woodwind and strings. It just doesn’t ever take flight, which is precisely what it should do in this story of a girl who becomes a bird. There are too few climaxes and the conflicts are never delineated enough to make the score really thrilling. It’s slow-paced much of the time and I found myself waiting for the next bit of inventive staging rather than fully engaging with the emotional content.
Le Gendre is clearly a talented composer and, given that this is her first full-length opera, it’s a great start. What she brings to the project is immensely valuable and if she can fully exploit the dramatic potential of her text, which in this case is certainly not lacking, she will be a composer worth looking out for.