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Uniformly Strong

Tobias and the Angel, reviewed by MIKE WHEELER


Tobias and the angel is a community opera in direct line of succession from Britten's Noye's fludde (performed at last year's Buxton Festival). First staged by Almeida Opera, London, in 1999, and used to re-open London's Young Vic in October 2006, it is fast acquiring classic status (St John's Church, Buxton, Derbyshire, UK, 9 July 2007).

The story comes from the biblical Apocrypha. Tobit, a devout member of the exiled Jewish community in Nineveh, breaks the law by burying a fellow Jew killed on the King's orders, and is blinded by passing birds (doing what birds do). Unable to work, he sends his son, Tobias, to his cousin, Raguel, in the town of Ecbatana, to recover a debt.

Meanwhile, Sara, Raguel's daughter, wakes from her wedding night to find her husband dead. Her six previous husbands have all suffered the same fate, killed by an evil spirit, Ashmodeus, who loves her.

Tobias is accompanied on his journey by a Stranger, who urges him to listen to the songs sung by the natural world around him, but which Tobias cannot hear. Falling into a river he is nearly swallowed by a giant fish, but urged by the stranger, he cuts out the fish's heart and gall.

He arrives in Ecbatana and is immediately attracted to Sara. Raguel, anxious to avoid repaying his debt, encourages them to marry, hoping Tobias will be another victim. But on the wedding night the Stranger tells Tobias to throw the fish's heart on the fire, which breaks Ashmodeus' spell. He and Sara return to Nineveh with the money, and Tobias is now able to hear the songs of the trees, the mountains and the river (his homecoming is all the more moving for being understated). At the Stranger's prompting he applies the fish's gall to his father's eyes, restoring his sight. The Stranger refuses the offer of money in return for his help, revealing himself to be the archangel Raphael.

David Lan's libretto tells the story swiftly and economically, matched by Jonathan Dove's immensely strong score, melodically and sonically inventive, splendidly singable, and with its echoes of Klezmer music in the communal celebration scenes. It is scored for a nine-piece band, including accordion, and there are parts for two adult choruses, one off-stage, one on, and a large chorus of children.

The solo roles in the Buxton Festival production were uniformly strong -- Matthew Wright's patriarchal Tobit, Ksynia Reynolds as his concerned wife, Anna, Richard Jeffery's Tobias charting a believable progress from laddish adolescence to maturity, Peter van Hulle's wily Raguel, Ellie Laugharne projecting his wife Edna's motherly concern for her daughter Sara, passionately sung by Heather Longman, and Robert-John Edward's sinister Ashmodeus, dressed from head to foot in scarily livid scarlet. Philip Jones had a natural authority as the Stranger. Comic relief came in the shape of Peter Irwin, Alan Jackson and Chris O'Hara as Raguel's trio of amusingly sardonic workmen.

The children's chorus, from four local schools, made the most of their opportunities, representing the birds and the river (which included manipulating a large, vividly coloured, carnival-style fish). Michael Barry's direction used the minimal set and props to excellent effect. Nicholas Smith conducted with a fine command of pace and ear for detail.

Copyright © 16 July 2007 Mike Wheeler, Derby UK



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