Young Appolline dozes in her seaside fishing village in the Caribbean during the 1950s. The life before her offers a choice between the ritual beliefs of her native country and an unknown future if she sets out to absorb foreign culture overseas – almost a symbol for opera itself as it looks to reinvent itself in the new millennium.

Dominique Le Gendre’s Bird of Night, her first full-length opera, was commissioned by the Royal Opera. It has been developed in workshops (this is the current fad for getting new work on to the stage, following in the unsteady footsteps of ENO’s hapless Gaddafi last month) and has now arrived at the Royal Opera House’s smaller performing space.

The opera seeks to occupy that border land where western and Caribbean cultures meet. Nowhere is that more successfully exploited than in the orchestral music, played with flair by 19 members of the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Yuval Zorn. Le Gendre makes use of traditional dance rhythms and instruments, fusing them into a poetic and vibrant score that recalls the exotic sounds exploited by composers such as Ravel and Britten.

The story is simple enough and sets up interesting parallel themes between night and day, the spiritual and the rational, old inherited knowledge and new scientific disciplines. The problem was that, at least as far as the interval, hardly any of the many words in Paul Bentley’s libretto could be heard. (Isn’t this the sort of problem that workshops are meant to sort out?) The opera seemed to drift and one’s mind drifted with it, until the scenes leading to the fiery denouement raised the intensity level.

Betsabée Haas looked just right as 15-year-old Appolline, though the vocal lines sometimes lie optimistically high for her. The rest of the cast ranged from the admirable – Andrea Baker, a tower of strength as the grandmother who sacrifices herself, but also Liora Grodnikaite and Grant Doyle – to the horribly strained. Irina Brown’s production is clear-headed, Rae Smith’s designs are sleek and simple, but this is the composer’s evening: Le Gendre is a name worth watching.

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