It’s not uncommon for television adaptations to inspire viewers to pick up the original novel. Across the country, sales of Tolstoy and Dickens are surely up this winter following the BBC serialisation of War and Peace and the clever drama that was Dickensian. Does opera ever do the same? La traviata certainly led me to read La Dame aux camélias (many times) and I keep meaning to summon the effort to read Don Quixote. However, the source of David Bruce’s new opera is already in my virtual shopping basket, so thrilling is the resulting stage work.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Ursula) © Robert Workman
Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Ursula)
© Robert Workman

There’s something decidedly odd about pitching up at Glyndebourne sans picnic hamper, wrapped up in heavy layers, the aroma of mulled wine wafting through the foyer at the interval. We were rewarded with something extraordinary. Janne Teller’s controversial young adult novel Nothing is a disturbing slice of Nordic noir, published in 2000. Its operatic adaptation marks the 30th anniversary of Glyndebourne’s education department, presenting Nothing as a co-commission with the Royal Opera. Performed by students drawn from schools in Kent and Sussex – many of whom get brief solo lines – and five young professional singers, the opera asks deep existential questions about identity and what really matters in life, turning disturbingly dark as the action unfolds.

It starts lightly enough, with the class of 7D reluctantly returning to their Danish school after the summer holidays. Bemoaning their lot, they are brought up short by Pierre, who declares that “Nothing matters” and effectively resigns from society, climbs a plum tree and stays there. His class try to persuade him down, or pelt him with rocks. They eventually decide to demonstrate to Pierre that he is wrong, that things do matter. They resolve to each take a treasured possession – superheroes and cuddly toys – and create a bonfire so he can see how moved they are when it burns down. But events spiral as the teens up the ante, nominating each other, demanding sacrifices which become traumatic to offer. It’s Lord of the Flies territory and it is chilling. Bijan Sheibani's sure-footed direction helps ratchet the drama up a notch each time Giles Cadle's revolving set turned the action from Pierre’s pixelated plum tree to the out-of-town sawmill where the bonfire is being constructed.

Stuart Jackson (Pierre) © Robert Workman
Stuart Jackson (Pierre)
© Robert Workman

Bruce sets Glyn Maxwell’s excellent libretto with flair and skilful word setting. The vocal writing for Pierre, in particular, is Brittenesque, drawing parallels with other “outsiders” like Peter Grimes and Quint. Stuart Jackson – destined to sing those great Britten roles – has an other-worldly quality about his tenor, colouring his words with such care that his was a deeply moving performance.

The other distinctive writing is for Agnes, forced to have her pigtails cut off and thrown onto the pyre. Bruce writes florid, Baroque and neoclassical lines for her, which soprano Robyn Allegra Parton dispatches with style whilst conveying great sympathy for her character, the girl most determined to prove Pierre wrong.

<i>Nothing</i> © Robert Workman
Nothing
© Robert Workman

Marta Fontanals-Simmons, a mezzo of tremendous promise, was superb as Ursula, forced into some horrific bargaining as the nominations get personal and she descends into madness. This young singer possesses a lovely, even tone allied to great stage presence. Tristan Hambleton sang Karl with authority, forced to give up his national flag, while countertenor James Hall makes much of Johan, a jolly minstrel figure at the outset – singing a witty ballad about the joys of democracy – who pays a bloody price. All five singers project with such clean diction that it was never necessary to avert one’s eyes from stage to surtitles.

The well-drilled students who make up the large chorus also deliver confidently. Bruce’s choral writing is attractive – catchy anthems such as “Brilliant Things” really groove and the boys’ gang flex their muscles with a Bernstein-like swagger. Their mob mentality draws more parallels with Peter Grimes.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Ursula) © Robert Workman
Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Ursula)
© Robert Workman

Bruce’s score is a marvel, the Southbank Sinfonia conducted with assurance by Sian Edwards. The prelude has a sense of cosmic doom, even hints of grandeur. Much of the harpsichord-flecked score glitters delicately, the double bass and harp accompaniment to “Nothing is worth saying” spare and haunting. Apocalyptic brass dominate as Ursula and Johan are told to follow Pierre’s cryptic instruction “Do the last thing you’d do”. The only slight doubt I harboured was over the inclusion of a feel-good epilogue when what had gone before was so shocking. But then, I always want Don Giovanni to end with his descent into hell. 

Nothing is the most powerful contemporary opera I’ve seen since Written on Skin, which is high praise indeed. I want to hear the score again. But first the book…