The universe and outer space have been hot topics of late. Professor Brian Cox has stolen our Sunday nights with explanations of the cosmos, delivered to the backing of a carefully sculpted soundtrack. The music, he reasons, is a vitally important part of the program, so much so that when BBC bosses decided to turn the volume down, the ‘rock scientist’ was outraged. No such trouble here, with Will Gregory encouraged to let loose his musical arsenal on a first opera dealing with these very topics.
It was not always so glamorous. Back in the 1930s, when Professor Auguste Piccard was preparing his capsule for an assault on the stratosphere, it wasn’t even common knowledge that light moved at the same speed 55,000 feet up as on the ground – and Piccard was determined to risk the lives of himself and assistant Paul Kipfer to find out this and other things.
The story caught the attention of the Goldfrapp mastermind when he visited the implausibly named Alpine village of Obergurgl, where Piccard’s craft landed – so much so he decided to realise a long held dream and base his first stage work on it. So here we are, poised on the edge of space with the BBC Concert Orchestra, an ensemble of five Moog synthesizers and a collection of endearingly chosen projections, bringing the spirit of the age to our sightlines.
The music is not as electronic as the BBC’s billing would have you believe. Rather it takes in sizeable chunks of operatic influence from Britten and Adams, the latter’s Doctor Atomic hard to dismiss as the white coated, bespectacled chorus sit round in a semi-circle at the start. The music tells the story with three especially memorable motifs – the professor’s obstinate ‘everything is calculated, everything anticipated’ set squarely against the chorus, who smell blood with their “Death, death, death, die!” refrains. In between this, they tongue twist the word ‘relativity’ to unexpected levels of catchiness.
Gregory’s score is intriguing, though there are problems of balance, the orchestra necessarily set far back on stage and underpowered as a result. The opulent Moogs are used judiciously, so that when the time comes for Gregory to describe the stratosphere, they take centre stage with some beautifully floated melodic lines, recalling the outer limits of Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain debut.
The libretto, written by Hattie Naylor, a friend of Gregory’s mother, is at times entertaining if occasionally clunky. In a captivating first half Piccard tries to address his assistant’s overwrought concerns, before the duo take off without even realising. They leave a worried Mary Plazas, playing Kipfer’s wife, and a bickering Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton, proclaiming their theories to whoever will listen. The two scientists are brought in to offer both reason and mocking judgement, Einstein (a full throated Leigh Melrose) gyrating to his own badly swung music with lecherous abandon, while the gloriously over the top Newton (Nicholas Clapton) is sent up as a baroque-style countertenor, complete with outrageous wig and tights.
Clapton steals the show with his lofty denouncements, but that doesn’t mean Andrew Shore as Piccard and Robin Tritschler as Kupfer are slouches. Far from it – for both get their turn in the spotlight for music of genuine emotion. Shore even leads some audience participation at the start of the second half, directing us as Captain Mainwaring might the cast of Dad’s Army.
The second half doesn’t quite match the first in drama, the plot accelerating as the duo’s capsule becomes unbearable before missing out some crucial elements of the descent. The end, too, is scrambled if oddly endearing. That shouldn’t detract from the evening’s entertainment, a largely successful first stage outing for Gregory benefitting from the enthusiasm of its creator. Purists will have hated it, and there were seemingly a few walkouts, but they missed the rest of an infectiously feelgood evening.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk