Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Giant review – Sarah Angliss’ taut opera enthrals at the Linbury Theatre

8 March 2024


Based on a true story about ‘The Irish Giant’, Charles Byrne, this 90 minute opera arrives in London following its feted premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival.

Giant

Giant (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Basking in the glory of a clutch of highly complimentary reviews following its premiere at the 2023 Aldeburgh Festival, the London premiere of Sarah Angliss’ opera, Giant, which charts the fortunes, or rather misfortunes, of legendary Irish ‘giant’ Charles Byrne (1761-1783), was keenly anticipated. This fictionalised account of two interwoven lives, Byrne’s and anatomist cum surgeon John Hunter, highlights the ambiguity that can exist when relationships are based on trust, and how easily that trust can be broken. Byrne sees Hunter as an ally, but Hunter has an ulterior motive – in exchange for the fame and visibility that he’s offering Byrne, he wants something in return. And that’s access to Byrne’s body when he dies so he can dissect it and put it on public display.

Are money and fame enough for Byrne to agree to this proposition? I don’t want to give too much away but suffice it to say the opera explores in vivid detail this conundrum that forms the crux of the work. Angliss manages to create enough tension over the work’s 90 minute span, to keep the viewer engaged, and invested in her characters. Billed as both composer and sound designer, she draws on multiple sources, creating a visual sound world that manages to look both backwards and forwards at the same time – a viola da gamba vies for attention within an hypnotic soundscape that includes electronic bells. It all sounds daringly original, but if there’s one criticism, and it’s a minor one, it’s that the work’s glacial pace, whilst hypnotic, at times threatened to sap the narrative of any sense of forward momentum.

“Angliss manages to create enough tension… to keep the viewer engaged…”

Giant

Jonathan Gunthorpe & Karim Sulayman (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Mostly sung, but occasionally spoken, Ross Sutherland’s libretto does full justice to the characters and story, and only jars occasionally – some parts were too clunky – but complements Angliss’ score nicely. Ben Smith’s musical direction was exemplary, securing taut playing from his six players. Karim Sulayman brought warmth, sincerity and pathos to the role of Charles Byrne, whilst Jonathan Gunthorpe injected the character of John Hunter with a suitable mix of menace and guile. This was a cast without fault, and in addition to the two leading men there was robust support from Galina Averina (Rooker), Anna Cavaliero (Madame DuVal), Melanie Pappenheim (Sister Mary/Curator) and Steven Beard (Howison).

Sarah Fahie directs with a sure hand, creating a staging in tandem with Hyemi Shin (designs), Nicky Gillibrand (costumes), and Adam Silverman (lighting) that presented the narrative clearly and concisely, yet never shied away from the story’s dark undertones. Giant is a deeply unsettling work, as it explores the profound impact obsession, deception, and betrayal can have on a person’s life – here the tragic figure of Charles Byrne. It also asks us, the audience, to question if much, or indeed anything, has changed since the 18th century in this regard. 

Posing as many questions as it answers, Angliss’ opera deserves to be seen far and wide, but there are only a handful of performances left at The Royal Opera – any remaining tickets deserve to be snapped up quickly.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.


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Giant review – Sarah Angliss’ taut opera enthrals at the Linbury Theatre