Before the snow which paralysed Central Scotland last week, Jonathan Dove was in Glasgow on a remarkable visit as two of his operas were in rehearsal on opposite sides of Hope Street. The snow stopped all public transport, forced cancellations of major orchestral concerts, severely curtailed Scottish Opera’s performances of Flight in Edinburgh and closed the whole campus of Royal Conservatoire of Scotland as rehearsals for The Day After were reaching their peak. To the credit of all, the show managed to open on schedule, but with shops and supermarkets running out of many food lines, the post-apocalyptic scenario of this opera had a certain dark resonance.

<i>The Day After</i> © Jamie Manton
The Day After
© Jamie Manton

Dove and his librettist April de Angelis sought a fable to reflect environmental concerns about global warming and vanishing species. Ancient tales retain their power, and updating Ovid’s account of Phaeton, recklessly put in charge of pulling the sun across the sky, to the present day provided a suitably sobering dystopian predicament. As we entered the Opera Studio space, we almost had to step over sleeping bodies strewn around designer Camilla Clarke’s black scorched earth mound, the people ragged, dirty and shabby after nights out in the open with no shelter.

The Day After started off as a work for five soloists, but has been successfully developed into a powerful opera with the addition of a chorus. It was first seen in this form at ENO Studio Live in May last year, the full creative team travelling to Glasgow to recreate the production with RCS forces. Head of Opera and Chorus Master Philip White conducted the very lively 16-piece band of woodwind, brass, harp and percussion at the rear of the mound, one double bass the only string instrument. The players threw themselves wholeheartedly into the driving, catchy polyrhythms, a mixture of dancing jazzy loops and crisp brassy fanfares interspersed with quieter beautiful lyrical episodes.

<i>The Day After</i> © Jamie Manton
The Day After
© Jamie Manton

Onstage, the bodies stirred, with only a few grains of rice and a dead cat to eat from their scavenging, the chorus lamented that only a few days ago their concerns were with the trivia of the popularity of brand names. Stylised choreography of choruses can quickly be overdone, but movement director Jasmine Ricketts found the perfect balance throughout as her potent mixture of unison and separate gestures ratcheted up the tension in the pressure cooker of the studio space, complementing Jamie Manton’s tight direction. The chorus beg the woman leader to relate the story of what happened, and so five characters emerge to tell the tale of Phaeton who gets bullied at school and journeys to find his father, sun god Phoebus. He is promised whatever he would like, pleads to drive the chariot that drags the sun across the sky and is reluctantly handed the reins. When the horses sense his weakness he loses control, steering the sun too close to the earth, scorching it with disastrous consequences. Phoebus is furious and hurls a lightning bolt killing Phaeton who falls to earth with the chariot.

This was a terrific ensemble piece, the impressive mighty singing and clear diction from the chorus blasting out across the scorched earth. The soloists were all finely sung, David Lynn taking the honours with his strong tenor, embracing chariot-driving with the overconfident playful grin of a novice driver being let out on his own with an expensive, powerful sports car. His journey to the sun god’s palace with its bouncing catchy rhythms was a highlight. Soprano Emma Mockett as his mother sang warmly about her relationship with Pedro Ometto’s Phoebus in bluesy 5/4 time, Ometto’s sturdy bass providing godlike gravitas. They were vocally well supported by Julia Daramy-Williams and Fiona Joice as the Young and Old Women, who with Mockett became the chariot’s wild horses, tossing their heads and straining at their reins.

<i>The Day After</i> © Jamie Manton
The Day After
© Jamie Manton

The tightly choreographed semi-chorus of school bullies, fiercely taunting and laying into Phaeton to a Bernstein-like accompaniment, was vivid and exciting, but there were dips in energy as the chariot ride in particular, thrilling and dynamic though it was, became over-extended. Although I was baffled by the red digital countdown clock which seemed to develop a mind of its own, and missed the significance of the notes the chorus wrote on scraps of paper, I absolutely loved the infectious energy of the opera, tackled here with astonishing and unstinting verve. Thomas Manning’s atmospheric lighting and haze added to the spectacle, particularly catching the anguished upturned faces of the chorus.

Dove and de Angelis do leave us on a positive note: in an echo of Noah’s family picking up the pieces after the flood and starting again the survivors find an olive stone and plant it, as the Young Man finds a beauty in the Young Woman.