Gripping, harrowing and profoundly serious, Between Worlds takes on one of the most shocking acts of terrorism in the modern era: 9/11. The opera inhabits the North Tower before, during and after the attacks. As desperation mounts inside the tower, while those inside still can’t fully understand what has happened, hysteria builds on the ground amongst the crowd below, appallingly aware and frantic for news of their loved ones. Our five main characters are marooned in a conference room on one of the highest floors, gradually realising that escape is impossible and death imminent. Their fear and anger resolve into a primal urge to communicate; to reach out one last time and say what must be said before parting forever: “I love you”, “I’m sorry” and most hauntingly, “Please take care of my child”. Amid the devastation, this act of communication becomes, in its own way, a kind of protest: a kind of victory, the love of individuals winning out over the terrible act of hatred which cut so many lives short.

To achieve this, Tansy Davies adds one mythical character, a Shaman, voiced by countertenor Andrew Watts: he acts as a bridge between reality and the Cosmos, enabling connections between children and parents, siblings, lovers and so on. This might sound whimsical, but is a vital element of the opera: in a story of desolation, to have nothing but unrelieved human suffering would be simply unwatchable. The Shaman affords us the little distance from the horror, the larger metaphysical viewpoint, which we need to absorb – and contextualise – what is shown on stage. Another tool Davies gives us is the Requiem Mass, interspersing it throughout her score to incorporate the timeless evocation of grief which balances hope with sorrow, using it for its ritual power rather than any religious connotations. The opera itself becomes a ritual, an act of communal remembrance through evocation. As you would expect, it is a profoundly upsetting piece. Nevertheless, it is carried out with nobility, grace, and utter pathos.   

Deborah Warner’s production for English National Opera at the Barbican Theatre is taut and finely acted, beginning and ending (fittingly) in complete darkness and silence. Michael Levine’s minimalist, industrial set operates on three split levels hung from delicate wires, giving an immediate sense of precarious danger, also allowing for wonderful aerial dancers in front and behind. Tal Yarden’s stunning video designs give us New York in all its glory at one moment, a stageful of anxious text messages at another.

While Between Worlds deals with a tragedy of global proportions, the most terrifying thing about its characters is their absolute ordinariness: unwitting accidental victims in the midst of ordinary life, ordinary betrayals, ordinary intentions to be better people. Nick Drake’s simple, human words bring their stories even closer: throughout, he builds a very real sense that this terrible tragedy happened to people like us, people who could have been us. Drake’s imagined characters exist in the midst of a great deal of real information (much of it revealed by Wikileaks) which, while not used verbatim, “became a kind of DNA” for the libretto (programme note). Appropriately, none of the characters have names, but are referred to by simple descriptions; each, really, is Everyman.

The two stars of the piece are Eric Greene’s Janitor and Andrew Watts’ Shaman. The humility and humanity of the Janitor is truly inspiring; tragically, he is only human being who does not appear to have anyone outside the tower to call. We have constant contrast and interplay between Greene’s warm baritone (and superb diction) and Watts’ clean, clear countertenor, its soaring strangeness accentuated by whistling, clicking and hissing to give the Shaman an otherworldly feel. 

Rhian Lois makes a feisty, sassy Younger Woman, with Sarah Champion as her sorrowing Lover. Clare Presland is extremely affecting as the Realtor, a working single mother who left her child without a goodbye after he refused to eat his breakfast, not knowing she would die that day: Presland’s tearful phonecall to her Babysitter (Claire Egan) says it all. William Morgan is instantly appealing as the Younger Man who is afraid of heights, while Susan Bickley is heartrending as his grief-stricken mother in her far-off garden, Niamh Kelly warm-voiced and moving as his sister. Phillip Rhodes blusters and rails as the Older Man who promised his wife (finely sung by Susan Young) he would go to see his cardiologist, but went to a breakfast meeting instead; Rhodes gives us a strong-minded businessman who finds it the hardest of all characters to admit defeat, his bullish machismo searching for practical solutions long after hope is gone.

Smaller characters remind us of the thousands of other sufferers: not just Ronald Samm’s Security Guard, and the Firefighters (Philip Sheffield and Rodney Earl Clarke), but the whole Ensemble, creating individual after individual and memory after memory. Davies uses her Ensemble as part characters, part musical palette: the jamming of the mobile phone signal is imaginatively portrayed through conflicting chants and screams from the Ensemble and Shaman.

Davies’ score feels utterly contemporary, with lots of insistent, yearning strings embellished with shimmering percussion; the ENO Orchestra, conducted by Gerry Cornelius, make the most of her vivid, shattering sound world. It is a heart-wrenching, harrowing piece, despite its emphasis on love: and it felt like a minute of pure, grieving silence before the storm of applause finally broke.