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English National Opera has previously staged Bach's St John Passion and the Verdi Requiem. In the centenary year of Tippett's birth, with the Auschwitz liberation anniversary upon us and with a subject-matter that benighted mankind seemingly cannot help repeating, the choice of A Child of Our Time for dramatisation is timely. The director, Jonathan Kent, had a wonderful opportunity to be bitingly relevant but the result is oddly deadpan and anonymous. I arrived at the theatre in dread of video walls of Pathé newsreel and CNN footage. I left it rather regretting their absence. The music moves us -- as it always should -- and the musical merits of the performance were not insubstantial. But you would have to wear not only your heart but also your solar plexus on the sleeve to have been wrestled from identification, through outrage and despair to 'an abiding hope' by much that was happening on the stage.

A scene from 'A Child of Our Time' at English National Opera. Photo © Neil Libbert
A scene from 'A Child of Our Time' at English National Opera. Photo © Neil Libbert

The chorus began as huddled masses sensibly without hope of Ellis Island but didn't have a great deal of meaningful action to contribute. There was a bit of a scuffle that didn't amount to much in the way of persecution. They helped the lowering of myriad instruments of violence that rose again as beacons of illumination and, later, descended as stones -- of oppression, perhaps, and to be built into the mounds of respect and remembrance. There was a non-singing young man (alter ego of the tenor who sang his story) who had to be disrobed, violated, buried, resurrected with a burning tree and restored to his clothes and his dignity. While nothing was intrinsically wrong with any of this apart from its lack of real engagement with the potential for startling contemporary significance, it seemed unduly tame. The 'Pieta' moment will always be of universal impact but it had me thinking backwards rather than relating to more recent headlines and front-page images. A low point in literalism was reached when, after the bass sings 'The garden lies beyond the desert', members of the chorus started plucking squares of turf from trapdoors in the stage. If it had been the end of Candide, I'd have laughed. As it was, I had to pinch myself in an effort to overcome disbelief!

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Copyright © 25 January 2005 David Wilkins, Eastbourne UK


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