Simon Rattle and Peter Maxwell Davies can both be regarded as two of the most passionate advocates for music education, and it was fitting that Rattle took up the baton to conduct the late composer’s last score The Hogboon, a children’s opera based on the myths from his beloved Orkney. The Barbican stage was used with maximum efficiency and inventiveness by stage directors Karen Gillingham and Ruth Mariner. The London Symphony Orchestra occupied the right-hand corner, leaving a few feet for some singers in front of them. The left-hand side, lightly but effectively dressed by designers Rhiannon Newman Brown and Sean Turner, was given up to the action. Soon the stage would be brimming with the massed forces of the London Symphony Chorus, the Guildhall School Singers and the LSO discovery choirs, not to mention the three trumpets and two percussionists stationed in the circle to great dramatic effect.

Katherine Broderick (Mother) and Sebastian Exall (Magnus) © Mary Turner | Getty Images for the London Symphony Orchestra
Katherine Broderick (Mother) and Sebastian Exall (Magnus)
© Mary Turner | Getty Images for the London Symphony Orchestra

The libretto, also written by Maxwell Davies, concerns a small island community terrified by a monstrous sea demon, the Nuckleavee, with a taste for human flesh. Young Magnus, the seventh child of a seventh child, is fated to save the day. Whilst the plot remained easily accessible for a younger audience, the stirring strings and mildly dissonant brass fanfares in the overture and scenes of a small community gripped by peril, brought to mind Peter Grimes.

There was no weak link in the ensemble. Treble, Sebastian Exall, gave an assured performance as Magnus, navigating some difficult and exposed vocal writing with confidence. The other soloists were consistently strong, Mark Stone’s warm baritone conveyed The Hogboon’s friendly spirit and Capucine Daumas had an entertaining cameo as ‘the cat’.

Sir Simon Rattle, Sebastian Exall (Magnus), Claudia Huckle (Good Witch) and Mark Stone (The Hogboon) © Mary Turner | Getty Images for the London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle, Sebastian Exall (Magnus), Claudia Huckle (Good Witch) and Mark Stone (The Hogboon)
© Mary Turner | Getty Images for the London Symphony Orchestra

The score, conducted with passion and drama by Sir Simon Rattle, who had a close relationship with Maxwell Davies, was consistently of a high quality if slightly erratic in its language. The first half had flashes of Prokofiev and Britten, but this dissonance was tempered by the arrival of several children’s choruses with a much more tonal idiom. That said, the challenges of writing for performers with wildly differing levels of technical ability were deftly handled. The idea of a large chorus of children in gruesome costumes linking arms to play the terrifying Nuckleavee was charming. It was admirable that such large forces were choreographed so smoothly, with performers frequently making their way through the audience.

Sebastian Exall (Magnus) and Choirs © Mary Turner | Getty Images for the London Symphony Orchestra
Sebastian Exall (Magnus) and Choirs
© Mary Turner | Getty Images for the London Symphony Orchestra

Ultimately, in little short of an hour, the opera was perhaps lacking in some dramatic tension, the resolution, when it came, was swift and uncomplicated. Although the closing words ‘God bless you all, farewell’ felt particularly poignant. The female characters also felt underdeveloped, with no clear role models and a lack of sense of growth. This did not detract too much, however, from a sophisticated and involving work that had a lot for all ages to enjoy. The need for a large symphonic orchestra and multiple accomplished amateur youth choirs probably means it will be difficult to stage this work as often as it deserves, especially at a time when arts education is underfunded.

The second half was no less exciting, with the combined forces of the London and Guildhall Symphony Orchestras performing Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The ensemble was miraculously tight, with no discernible difference in quality of playing and conducted with relish and drama by Rattle. The “March to the Scaffold” was played with bombastic menace and the Dies irae brass motif and ominous bells produced a sound so rich in the finale that I was internally questioning whether a new London concert hall is really necessary.