The most significant thing about this double bill of contemporary operas was that it happened at all. With companies like the English Opera Group, Kent Opera and Almeida Opera having disappeared, the opportunities for emerging composers to kick-start their operatic careers were few and far between. A new collaboration between Aldeburgh Music, Opera North and The Royal Opera will fill this gap, commissioning three sets of chamber operas over three years. With top-notch resources at their disposal, this framework is invaluable for the development of young composers and offers them vital experience. These two operas were the first products of this new initiative, displaying mixed results: while Francisco Coll produced a taut, memorable work, Elspeth Brooke’s venture proved less successful.

Daniel Norman (Silversmith) in <i>The Commission</i> © Rob Marrison
Daniel Norman (Silversmith) in The Commission
© Rob Marrison

The Commission was first on the bill. Brooke and librettist Jack Underwood had taken too big a risk; attempts to create layer upon layer of meaning only served to complicate and confuse. Based upon Michael Donaghy’s tale of murder, betrayal and faith, the subject proved too complex for the given time frame. Themes could only be touched upon, rather than explored; the narrative progression felt accelerated; and the plot lacked clarity in performance. The surreal film projections and use of Foley only made matters worse, resulting in a cluttered and overloaded stage.

Perhaps most disappointing was how the opera appeared to be nothing other than a collection of clichés. Film noir episodes reminiscent of Sin City saw the tormented Craftsman (Andri Björn Róbertsson) don a fedora and a trench coat, stalking the stage moodily to plucked double bass and cymbal. I was left with little sense of Brooke’s own compositional voice: much of the music seemed to be self-satisfied references. The opera was allusive to the point of obscurity, leaving me nonplussed. It seems that others felt the same, as there were definitely a few more empty seats after the interval.

Suzanne Shakespeare (Girl) and Daniel Norman (Man 1) in <i>Café Kafka</i> © Stephen Cummiskey
Suzanne Shakespeare (Girl) and Daniel Norman (Man 1) in Café Kafka
© Stephen Cummiskey

Thank goodness, then, for Café Kafka. The combination of Francisco Coll’s distinctive musical voice and librettist Meredith Oakes’ clever take on Kafka produced a characterful piece which combined humour with darker undertones. Oakes transferred Kafka’s characteristic themes of claustrophobia, helplessness and disorientation to an exploration of the relations between the sexes, using characters inspired by the writer’s short stories. Two men and two women flirt, philosophise and argue, their interactions suddenly interrupted by the soliloquy of the mysterious Hunter Gracchus (sung with poise and gravitas by Björn Róbertsson).

The scenario was ideal for displaying the young talent, and Coll rose to the challenge: Suzanne Shakespeare’s Girl was bubbly and vivacious, while the writing for Daniel Norman’s Man 1 became increasingly introspective as he gradually retreated into a state of anxiety and paranoia. Coll responded to the humorous potential of Oakes’ libretto, painting the characters in bold musical colours and with harmonic flair. His is already an assured musical voice, sensitive to nuanced sonorities and possessing a broad expressive palette. With a sleek set by Joanna Parker (which doubled as cocktail bar and yacht for the Hunter Gracchus) and witty direction by Annabel Arden, this opera made a significant impression.

All the singers gave outstanding performances, and CHROMA (under Richard Baker’s baton) played with confidence and verve. With Café Kafka showing the calibre of works which this collaboration has the potential to produce, I’m very much looking forward to the next two sets.