December 11, 2013 5:39 pm

How the Whale Became, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London – review

Based on a Ted Hughes book for children, Julian Philips’ opera explores how we become ourselves
From left, Donna Lennard, Fflur Wyn, Andrew Dickinson and Njabulo Madlala in 'How the Whale Became'©Catherine Ashmore

From left, Donna Lennard, Fflur Wyn, Andrew Dickinson and Njabulo Madlala in 'How the Whale Became'

How to be? Most of us face this question at some point in our lives, especially when growing up (as if we ever stop). It’s about how you become yourself, how to accept yourself, how to find your place in the world. To create a musical-theatrical allegory along these lines seems a good idea, especially if you use Ted Hughes’s The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales as a source. Dressing the allegory in the guise of animals – as the late poet did and Julian Philips does in his new opera – offers scope for entertainment, even if younger members of the audience don’t immediately understand the wider perspective.

The problem with How the Whale Became, premiered by the Royal Opera on Tuesday, is that it can’t make up its mind who its audience is. With a first half of 60 minutes and a second of 40, it is too long for kids, or maybe just too long-winded for the flimsy narrative: think how much more substance Ravel and Oliver Knussen packed into their one-act operas, the fantastical sounds of which (and of Ravel’s Histoires naturelles) have clearly influenced Philips.

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But it is also a bit lightweight for adults. There’s too much talk of God and not enough simple soliloquising, so that the underlying point – that the creative spirit exists in us all – gets lost. The words (libretto by Edward Kemp) are frequently sacrificed to high-pitched notes or the Linbury’s awful acoustic.

Philips nevertheless evokes a world of enchantment, thanks to deft use of accordion, bass clarinet, recorder, flexatone, violin and tin-pot percussion, all played by five musicians who are integral to the set. Natalie Abrahami’s fluent staging, designed by Tom Scutt and brilliantly lit by James Farncombe, resembles a playroom conflation of Gardeners’ World, Doctor Who and The Lion King. The frog (coloratura soprano) wears green wellies and goggles. The polar bear (soubrette) parades in white fur coat and hat. The peacock (tenor) sports a magnificent plumage. The whale (bass) is the least recognisable.

How the Whale Became is cute enough to make its publisher some money, but not succinct enough to become a classic.


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