Nothing from Glyndebourne - David Bruce's new opera created for Glyndebourne Youth Opera now on The Opera Platform, but catch it quick - it's only available til 2200 on 9th May. Nothing IS something, better than the term "youth opera" suggests. It also marks the emergence of Stuart Jackson, a singer so interesting that he could - should - be a distinctive Peter Grimes. David Bruce's The Firework Maker's Daughter was well received at the Royal Opera House in 2012, but Nothing is special. Ostensibly a "school story", it's much more. Based loosely on a novel by Janne Teller, with a libretto by poet Glyn Maxwell, the narrative deals with abstract concepts like individuality and conformity, but also questions the very idea of values.
It's September, and the class is back at school, bragging about what they've done (or imagined they've done) in the summer. Suddenly Pierre - or rather Stuart Jacksdon's distinctive voice - emerges from the crowd. In a beautiful, mysterious aria, he declares he's done "nothing" and walks out the gate. Climbing a tree in the orchard, he sings "Nothing is worth doing. So I will do nothing, nothing. " The song is beautiful. The resemblance to Tudor lute song may be deliberate. "This is all happening long ago". "Is"? one thinks, and almost immediately Jackson's voice reaffirms the point, dropping seductively on the words "long ago", then rising to a crescendo on the words "Tomorrow.....yesterday" It's magical.
But the students chant, clapping their hands. Mock medieval music again, shades of Carmina Burana or something much more sinister. Waving stakes in the air, the kids build a pyre. "Let's get him" they scream. "Things will burn and be gone forever!" The class of 7D will stick together. Or "out of the gang, forever, out! out!" To prove their obedience, they have to give up what they cherish most. Agnes (Robyn Allegra Parton) has her pigtails cut off. "It's democracy", or the rule of the mob. "No exceptions". Agnes, at least, starts to question. Seemingly alone in the dark, she sings a solo "Some things you think you need...." concluding that the things you really need are "those within your heart". Pierre has, however, been listening. Jackson sings a strange song about Agnes, who will live to be 80, wasting most of her life pleasing others, only really alive in the time she spent alone, on her bicycle, "pedalling away".
Glynn Maxwell's libretto's are often too abstract to follow, spoiling good music, like Luke Bedford's Seven Angels (read more here).At least in Nothing, surrealism is part of meaning. The imbalance between the original Danish novel and the English setting of the opera throws up unsettling images, like the Danish flag, or "rag", and Olaf, the dead dog eternally running and catching sticks. The images are askew, but in this opera, everything's supposed to be askew. Maxwell's thing for smartass wordplay sometimes gets in the way: "Olaf - Oh, laugh" for example.
The class (or mob) march and scream. "You made us go too far, Pierre" It's all his fault for making them question. Nihilism explodes into frenzied discord. Suddenly Agnes is back in the silent orchard. Perched in the tree, Jackson sings another lovely sequence "Why don't you listen to nothing with me, listen to where we belong", the last syllable "long" stretching eloquently. But the Class wants blood. Pierre returns, climbing up the pyre "I can see the whole world from here, and it's nothing, and it's beautiful.....it's wonderful !" Join me, he says. But the mob won't have it and set the pyre alight.
Years later, the class returns, grown up, but still denying responsibility, blaming "the parents" , not themselves. Agnes, now an old woman, returns to the tree, followed gradually by her classmates. The music resembles keening folk song. A single fiddle plays a simple, rhythmic line. The school is dark, they wake in the dawn but Pierre is still sleeping, forever young. What did Pierre's self sacrifice mean? His classmates still don't understand "nothing". At the end, elusive single chords, vaguely reminiscent of Benjamin Britten. I still don't understand Nothing, but the music is so moving that it makes me feel, and think.