A son asks his absentee father if he can drive his powerful, expensive vehicle. The father knows his son is not up to the task and foresees disaster. Still, he succumbs to emotional blackmail and hands over the reins. This happened to the Greek sun god, who let his son Phaeton drive his chariot on its daily course from East to West. Phaeton, unable to control the headstrong horses, flew too close to the earth, searing the Sahara into the African continent. To prevent him from roasting the whole planet, Zeus struck him dead. At the première of Jonathan Dove’s new opera, The Day After, it was Phoebus himself who killed his son, with a blazing coup de théâtre the audience is unlikely to forget.

<i>The Day After</i> © Ben van Duin
The Day After
© Ben van Duin

The myth of Phaeton is an ingenious choice for exploring current climate change concerns and the conflict between technology and nature. The filicide sharpens the intimate family drama, but the opera also expands to the epic proportions of its global repercussions. Holland Opera chose to perform the work outdoors, at Fort Rijnauwen, a 19th century venue they have used before. The production team thoroughly exploited the possibilities of this beautiful location. Rusty constructions delimited a huge tree-skirted area in which the performers seemed to be moving across a film set. The flames and fire circles erupting within the fortress walls, which snake through the greenery, were a concrete image of the human threat to nature.

The characters are survivors of an environmental cataclysm who act out the events that shattered their lives. The five soloists also take on the role of the chorus, warning and keening in the best classical Greek tradition. Acrobats, jugglers and dancers liven up the unfolding of the plot. The score makes copious use of minimalist patterns, complemented by April de Angelis’ terse libretto, but incorporates other musical idioms. Jazz rhythms propel the school fight that prompts Phaeton to travel to his father’s palace in India, and the journey itself is a sampler of world music. His mother narrates her affair with Phoebus in an aria that starts out as a bluesy ballad, then spins itself into a sensuous Eastern vocalise. The clipped conversation sometimes sounded like a musical, a style with which some of the cast sounded uncomfortable. Despite its eclecticism, Mr Dove’s score has a rewarding narrative lucidity, not least through assigning characters their own themes and instruments: trilling woodwinds for the Young Woman, a cocksure trumpet for Phaeton, and a trombone echoing the low-voiced Phoebus. Just like the libretto, which switches from curt, even indelicate, vernacular to poetry, the music alternates between the familial and the cosmic.

Costumed, like the cast, in textured tatters and matted locks, jongNBE, the junior branch of the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble, played with much sparkle, if not always flawlessly. Conductor Niek Idelenburg let the score’s lyricism bloom, but more varied articulation of the repeated elements would have enriched his interpretation. The same can be said of the dynamics, although the necessary miking of both singers and orchestra probably affected volume gradation. Mounted on Arend Bruijn’s agile percussion, the spirited passages shuttled along thrillingly, nowhere more so than during the ride of the sun chariot. In what was both the musical and theatrical climax, tenor Erik Slik as Phaeton steered a colossal engine built from space capsule wreckage. Transitioning from heady euphoria to blind panic, he almost grazed the tree canopy framing the natural stage. As the behemoth hurtles out of control, Phaeton’s music turns almost heroic and Mr Slik’s light lyric tenor was challenged to its outermost limits. Elsewhere, he sang with an attractively youthful sound, ably executing the many exposed high notes.

The other young cast members were equally talented. Alistair Shelton-Smith made an athletic Phoebus in a swirling scarlet robe. His effortlessly projected baritone has an appealing upper range and promises to deepen with age. After a slightly faltering start, Sandra Botor brought rich, earthy tones to the role of the Old Woman. Her alto shot the final lachrymose quintet with soft, deep velvet. With her silvery soprano, Nicole Fiselier was well cast as the Young Woman. Hopefully, future performances will find her in better voice and without the pitch issues in the upper half of the voice. As Phaeton’s Mother, Fenna Ograjensek gave a wholly fleshed-out performance, her stage presence as assured as her full, malleable soprano.

In the Greek myth, Zeus transforms Phaeton into a constellation and his sisters, who shed streams of tears for him, into poplar trees. Nature also prevails at the end of The Day After. The final lament leaves a door open for hope, by way of love and regeneration. The birds of Fort Rijnauwen joining in with a gentle dusk chorus seemed to endorse the message.