The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at the Crescent Theatre, Birmingham on 26th February 2015.
Ava’s Wedding, a new opera by Michael Wolters and librettist Alexandra Taylor, was written specifically for Birmingham Conservatoire. Whatever else it might be, that’s a significant achievement, as was this whole vividly-realised premiere production.
There are caveats. Ignore the patronising programme essays: the idea of using grand opera conventions to satirise English manners is as old as Gilbert and Sullivan. Taylor’s expertly-crafted libretto is one of the least poetic we’ve heard in a modern opera – and that’s high praise. But a few details jarred: did the word “Islamophobia” even exist in 1988, the period evoked by Colin Judges’ designs and Jennet and Alan Marshall’s costumes? The inner logic of a comic opera has to be watertight.
Because that’s what this is: a pacy black comedy of an extended family hurtling towards a series of disasters that they’re all simply too polite to avoid. Director Michael Barry handled the interlocking storylines deftly and lucidly. Eleanor Hodkinson played Ava with quiet desperation; the punk Holly (Victoria Adams) and her rival Georgia (Elizabeth Adams) nearly brought the house down with a pair of matched coloratura arias about bridesmaid’s dresses, while estranged sisters Patricia (Samantha Oxborough) and Rita (Eloise Waterhouse) each found real pathos in their balancing accounts of a family feud.
But with 21 named parts, a five-part chorus representing Truth, and at least 10 separate storylines it was hard for individual characters to emerge; and the grand guignol ending left you unsure whether you were really meant to believe in any of them. Likewise, Wolters’ gutsy post-minimalist score: based on English composers from Ethel Smyth to Andrew Lloyd Webber, it often seemed to work against the emotion.
Under Fraser Goulding’s baton, though, it was never less than entertaining, and at moments – such as an exquisite four-part madrigal – seemed to be straining towards a real operatic tragedy, not just a parody. Frustrations notwithstanding, Ava’s Wedding leaves you wanting to watch it all over again: a rare feat for a new opera.