‘You’d think after my brother the snake was born they’d have stopped at one’ was the thought that suddenly popped into the head of the writer of the Horrid Henry books Francesca Simon. She was at the time considering Hel, the Norse goddess of the dead, whose parents Loki and Angrboda gave birth to a snake, a wolf and then the monstrous half-human, half-corpse herself. From this idea came her novel The Monstrous Child, from which she then developed a libretto and, with composer Gavin Higgins, created the opera that now appears as the Royal Opera’s first production in its newly refurbished Linbury Studio.
The Monstrous Child derives its subject matter from Norse mythology, with the focus being on Hel. Odin, fearing the prophecy that the children of Loki will overthrow the gods at the end of days, traps the snake under the sea, chains the wolf underground, and proclaims Hel queen of the dead as he hurls her into Niflheim. Hel, however, has fallen in love with the beautiful god Baldr, who alone has been kind to her, and over the following centuries she fantasises that he will rescue her. One day news reaches Hel that Baldr has died and she is excited beyond belief, but when he arrives in Niflheim he repulses her love.
Odin appears, begging Hel to do the extraordinary and restore Baldr, as the gods’ lifeline, to their kingdom of Asgard, but she is bent on keeping him. She consents in the end to let him return if all things will weep for him. Odin and Baldr agree believing that everyone loves him, but in the event there is one ‘dissenting’ voice as Hel fails to cry, and so he remains where he is as the gods and the world as it is known perishes. Hel expresses some regret for causing all this by attempting to hold Baldr against his will, but she also sees the opportunity to build a new world from the ground up so that the opera does end with an upbeat feel. Simon specifically wanted Hel to be the last one left standing because in so many operas it is the woman who dies at the end.
Timothy Sheader’s staging is wonderfully inventive, as Paul Wills’ set depicts Niflheim as a place that is putrid beyond belief, and yet not entirely unrelatable. The character of Hel spends the entire opera situated within her rotting bed (picture a giant dung heap), but at the same time the scrawls of the word ‘Hel’ in black all over the surrounding walls could be those of a moody teenager wanting to make her bedroom feel ‘Gothic’. Over the course of the evening, in fact, the word ‘Hel’ is projected, courtesy of Ian William Galloway’s video designs, in a variety of forms so that in white it creates a moon, and in red a heart.
Puppetry is also brought into play so that the birth of the three children sees Rosie Aldridge as Angrboda placed at the centre of a huge ‘wicker woman’, while the snake, wolf and Hel pop out of a giant vagina set in a trampoline-like structure that stands before her. The people found in Niflheim all reveal how they died as they have axes through their heads, bicycle wheels around their necks or are hooked up to drips. Blocks of ice are suspended from the ceiling, and towards the end we see a clash of fire and ice. Before this the drip of the melting water is just one of several sound effects generated beyond the orchestra in Gavin Higgins’ innovative score, which is conducted extremely well by Jessica Cottis.
Der Ring des Nibelungen is about the whole world on the one hand, and extremely domestic and personal relationships on the other. The Monstrous Child also has something of this dichotomy about it as Loki is initially absent from his children’s birth and then turns up swigging on a can of Foster’s before gorging on a bucket of chicken. Similarly, when Hel knows Baldr is arriving she readies herself by trying on clothes and jewellery in a manner that feels very human. In other ways, character interactions are a little lacking as the emphasis is on Hel espousing her own thoughts and feelings. In the first half, in particular, she is very much the narrator as the singer Marta Fontanals-Simmons describes what has happened while the other performers and a puppet of Hel act out the events.
In this way, the opera feels very much like a narration with illustrations, which was intentional in that Simon wanted Hel’s voice and hence feelings to be at its heart. However, it does thwart the sense of there being any real interaction between characters and hence the ability for us to feel that much emotionally for what we see. This becomes less of a problem in the second half as Fontanals-Simmons takes centre-stage more without the puppet, but even here Hel’s greatest level of interaction is probably with Modgud, the giantess who guards the bridge to Niflheim. This works well, but further occurrences in this vein would enable us to feel more for the story rather than it simply seeming as if we are being told it.
The problem would be greater, however, were Marta Fontanals-Simmons not so engaging as Hel as, with a mezzo-soprano of great radiance, roundedness and clarity, she makes us hang on her every word. She heads a cast that is splendid all round, as Rosie Aldridge as Angrboda, Tom Randle as Loki and Lucy Schaufer as Modgud all display excellent voices. Dan Shelvey as Baldr reveals a tenor of great expansiveness and aesthetic refinement, while it is hard to picture anyone playing Odin better than Graeme Broadbent with his extremely broad and dark bass.
Mark Austin conducts on 27 and 28 February.