The newly refurbished Linbury Theatre in the Royal Opera House is having its first opera performances with the world premiere of The Monstrous Child, based on the novel of the same name by Francesca Simon (who also wrote the libretto) with music by Gavin Higgins in his operatic debut with the inspiring Aurora Orchestra in the pit. At just over two hours (including an interval) it is based on Norse mythology, about Hel, the third child from the union of a God and a Giant. Her elder siblings are a snake and a wolf, and whilst her top half looks quite human, her bottom half is rotting flesh- a living corpse (brilliant realised in this production); the three siblings are kidnapped by the Gods and all banished to different places, with Hel made Queen of the Underworld, which in a twist of fate, leads all the Gods who wronged her to their doom.
As the book is targeted at teenagers, so too the opera, making it a great first opera for teenagers to go to and enjoy. Covent Garden has already had The Ring Cycle this season, now it has this ‘mini’ version for a teenage audience. The characterisation and the production is definitely aimed at a younger audience: Hel is a teenage-style character, talking to the audience directly, seeing them as the newly dead, talking in the way a teenager would about her parents, it’s very well done in that the more adolescent-skewed aspects of the production: the physical humour (puppetry of Hel’s giant mother with a very large vagina giving birth in succession three times- playing for laughs but brilliant puppetry) is at the beginning, to relax those who haven’t been to the opera before and then as the story and the characters develop, it needs that less.
Timothy Sheader the director, in his Royal Opera House debut, has made something stunning here. The puppetry is brilliantly done, it is very imaginative how he made the young Hel, her siblings and her mother, it’s a lot of effort and skill and it shows; the digital sets are also stunning, using Hel’s name to create hearts, darkness, trees, it’s amazing. One point of contention for me in the production is that for the duration of the opera there is dripping water from ice blocks which are for the majority high out of sight, the constant dripping of the melting ice can get in the way of listening to the music depending where you sit, but it does set the atmosphere of being in a cave in hell for sure, and at the denouement of the opera the ice blocks take on a fantastic new role bringing a whole new perspective of the battle of fire and ice- annoying but worth it when you get to the end. It is stunning what they do with the ice (pickaxes are involved). It is produced in English, although I think it was a mistake to not have surtitles, as some of the activities and laughs from audience can it make it difficult to hear.
The music is a very interesting mix of different styles, a lot of Nordic influences, with some great brass highlights, it feels like the music is more of a psychological backdrop to the story being shown, it’s quite powerfully done.
Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Hel is very good in her ROH debut, a great actress who can simultaneously exude that teenager-style attitude as well as a purity and melancholy which only grows as the character and story develops, she has a great lower register, pushing slightly with the upper, but a great talent. The second act in particular is when she really shines, can’t wait to see what she does next. For me the star of the first act is Rosie Aldridge as Angrboda the giantess, the mother of Hel. Aldridge’s voice is fantastic- clear and sharp and at the peak of her powers, in someone else the role could be quite two dimensional and basic but here, you really feel for her, she’s not just comic relief.
Dan Shelvey as Baldr, the subject of Hel’s love and Lucy Schaufer as Modgud, the guardian of the world of the dead both have relatively small roles but they make them their own and make them much bigger with their skilful acting, bringing emotion and empathy to their roles and with Shelvey in particular, has a fantastic voice from which I hope we will see a lot more in the future.
This is a dark opera- there’s mutilation, abandonment, kidnapping and murder, but it also comes with some fantastic humour and one liners, my favourite being at the end of Act 1: “I’m the happiest corpse alive”.
The Monstrous Child is a daring and exciting new opera, doing something new, not just with its fantastically imaginative production but with its characterisation and story, a new way of looking at a story and anything that can open opera up more, to make it more accessible can only be a good thing.
Words by Stuart Martin.
The Monstrous Child runs at Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House from 21st February — 3rd March. For more information, visit Royal Opera House.
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