FULL formal review HERE. These are/were my first thoughts. What you put into any experience affects what you get out. That's the message of Luke Bedford's Seven Angels and one which audiences should remember too. Don't come expecting Mamma Mia. Seven Angels isn't the musical equivalent of fast food. Instead, it works its way outwards from an inner core of musical depth. A tone poem with voices.Seven Angels is a work by a musician that reveals itself as music taking opera form, just as the angels come to earth to act out characters in a role play.
Seven Angels is allegory, and like allegory, it works obliquely through images. The starting point is John Milton's Paradise Lost but don't make the mistake of expecting a literal, or even literary traverse. There are huge hints in the staging (John Fulljames, The Opera Group). Books everywhere, hundreds of them, and projections behind of pages. Millions of words, some legible, some not. A veritable cacophony of written text.
But what are words, when you think about it? They're just expressive markings for communication, not communication itself. The Prince consumes books, stuffing pages torn straight from their covers, until he looks like he's going to burst. Consume is the operative word. It's only when his plate is empty that he sees himself reflected in the shining metal. Later, members if the Conference gather to discuss the evils of overconsumption at a table made from piles of books. Like the Tower of Babel, it collapses. Words alone are delusion. So listen to Bedford's Seven Angels as a musical evolution whose secrets are encoded in the orchestration, vocal and instrumental.
Seven Angels starts with a mysteriously opaque murmur that gradually takes shape: a metaphor for the chemical forces that existed before the creation of the universe. Just as the Bible describes Seven Days of Creation, the music moves in plateaux, ideas developing in groups, then moving onwards to new planes. The dark brooding primordial sweep gives way to brightness and sharp, rhythmic ostinato. The pulse is quickening. Very subtle and imaginative musical writing. In fact, I think Seven Angels should be heard in concert performance, to focus on the musical logic. The visuals are extremely important but this is a work that needs to unfold on different levels. Like George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill, Bedford's Seven Angels needs to be absorbed slowly : it's not at all superficial, and can't be gobbled up in one sitting!
The angels are trying to figure out how the world became the way it is. Instinctively, they recreate the earth's imagined history by acting out the narrative we see on stage. Significantly, they don't know the answers. They're doing role play to stimulate ideas which they don't get from reading books. So, too, the way into Bedford's Seven Angels is intuitive. Don't get distracted by the earnest allusions to eco-politics and G20 banquets where politicians talk, stuffing themselves while the poor starve. The ranting here comes from the angels pretending to be "politicians". Politcian-speak, words without meaning. You can choose whethervto take it at face value. Seven Angels is a reminder that the real riches of existence aren't to be taken for granted. The Garden of Eden isn't about apple trees but about deeper values. That's why the tree in this production is paper, a cardboard cut-out that pops out of a book. The real fruit of Seven Angels is the sensitivity you can get from letting it work on your soul.
Musically, Seven Angels is very strong indeed. Small ensemble, but extremely unusual and used in inventivce, creative ways. The piano creates a sort of framework like an inner mertronome over which undulations of low winds and strings palpitate. It feels like the breathing of a living organism. Then, angular agitation, sharp rhythmic ostinato: the organism jerking into action, perhaps. The orchestration is subtle. What is that strange wailing you hear in the second half ? Contrabassoon as solo voice, horribly unsettling, but beautiful in a strange, ethereal way. Very strong integration between vocal and non-vocal forces. The four low violas rumble, a singer snores. The angels stand in line, snapping the pages of books, so the sound becomes another form of percussion. It's remarkably effective, and might be an element of staging that survives into future productions. When the angels return where they came ftrom, the orchestra creates howling concentric patterns of sound, whirring like a clock being wound backwards. Extraordinarily vivid.
This libretto, by Glyn Maxwell, "sings" even on the page, for text that is sung is music, not mere shapes on a page. Bedford translates it extremely sensitively. Each angel is distinctive, and lines can be heard clearly when needed, retreating into the orchestration as instruments do, when a more diffuse effect is neeeded. No heroic feats of gymnastic singing needed. These angels are feeling their way into human situations. The lines are semi-conversational, with occasional flights of wild fantasy (the queen in particular - a telling psychological touch). This gives it surprising freedom and must make it a pleasure to sing. I can imagine what Seven Angels might be like with truly top rank singers, but these communiucate well. It's almost an anachronism to refer to these singers as "cast" because they function as part of the whole orchestration, like the individual musicians of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Ensemble. Nicholas Collon conducts.
For an opera where musical values mean so much, The Opera Group's staging is integral to the production. I specially loved the images of the cosmos, white specks of light flickering in darkness, replicated in filmed projections and in the costumes the singers wear. Star People, yes! Grey jackets, like the ash on the barren desert they visit. Books are lined up in rainbow colours : another image of the Paradise that's been lost. Luke Bedford's Seven Angels is how opera should be done, libretto and staging growing with the music from an early stage. It's an extremely rewarding experience, much more emotionally satisfying than a lot of recent new opera. So what if it's not quick-fix. The finest meals are the ones that nourish, not the ones that come in fancy plastic packaging.(and I don't mean Mark Antony Turnage who's OK)
And exactly as I've said, I've ruminated and read the work over, and have written a much more interesting piece than this ! HERE it is in Opera Today.
Photos copyright Alastair Muir. Christopher Lemmings as The Prince, Rhona McKail as The Waitress, Owen Gilhooly as the General, Keel Watson as The King, Emma Selway as the Queen, Joseph Shovelton as the Industrialist.