Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s fourth opera, Coraline, marks quite a departure for him, written with a family audience in mind. How would he respond to a well-known gothic children’s story, which has already been adapted into a successful animated film?
From the off the music does not disappoint. Sian Edwards directs an energetic Britten Sinfonia, relishing idiosyncratic combinations of trumpet and pizzicatos, with lovely low resonances of viola and bassoon, creating a sinister undertone, which presages events. Coraline has just moved house with her parents, who are both so busy they have little time for her. She is bored and looking for trouble. Mary Bevan’s unadorned vocal line captures the mood, a gripping performance. She visits her new neighbours, intriguing characters: Mr Bobo and his reluctant mouse orchestra and the ‘resting’ actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, who have more than a hint of pantomime ugly sisters. Their ravishing duets create some of the funniest moments. Coraline is looking for adventure, her inventor father, preoccupied, offers her turnip soup. Alexander Robin Baker is wonderfully warm and eccentric with great comic timing as Coraline’s real father and the sinister Other Father to come.
Still restless, Coraline strays too far, investigating a mysterious blocked door in her new home. Spectral voices in otherworldly clashing harmonies warn her against crawling through it, but too late. Percussive effects and piano, celesta and harp announce her arrival in an ominous place which looks like the mirror-image of the room she has left. A woman comes through another door, warm and welcoming, offering her every delight, identical in every way to Coraline’s mother with one strange exception: she has buttons for eyes. Kitty Whatley sings with great assurance and as her evil intent becomes apparent the vocal line becomes more crazed and vertiginous, the evil Other Mother who has kidnapped children throughout the ages. The warning ghostly timbres are those of the children previously trapped and killed. The Other Mother, like the White Witch in Narnia, offers Coraline everything she has ever wanted, if she will let her sew buttons on her eyes. Whately is terrifying as she brandishes long needles behind her beguiling smile. Coraline tricks her way out and escapes back home to find that her parents have disappeared. They have been taken. The only way to rescue them is to go back through the door and put her life at risk again.
The suspense is palpable at the halfway point, but in spite of magical effects and visits from the Ghost Children in the second Act the tension does not build with the same success. As the story becomes more threatening and full of horror this is not seen in the detail of the set and costumes. Whately as the Other Mother is outstanding in an evocation of fear, but her costume remains staid and realistic as does the main setting of the Other World, a missed opportunity to marry Turnage’s fascinating music with stage-design of dark visual interest.
- Performances until April 7
- Broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Saturday April 21 at 6.30 p.m. (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- Royal Opera House www.roh.org.uk