British Youth Opera have been fostering the best of young British vocal talent for 25 years, and it’s a delight to see them celebrating their anniversary this year with a work precisely as old as they are: Judith Weir’s A Night at the Chinese Opera dates from 1987, and made for a lively showcase for these rising stars at London’s Peacock Theatre last night.

Louise Kemeny and Catherine Backhouse as the Actors © Clive Barda / ArenaPAL
Louise Kemeny and Catherine Backhouse as the Actors
© Clive Barda / ArenaPAL

With both music and lyrics by the composer, A Night at the Chinese Opera is set in 13th-century China and tells the story of Chao Lin, a child orphaned following the invasion of his family’s city, who grows up, learns about his past, and becomes set on avenging his parents’ fate. Faint Hamlet overtones intensify in the central, second act, an opera within an opera which involves a troupe of actors playing out a story which resonates closely with the central character’s own (sufficiently closely, in fact, that the characters’ fathers even share a name). The music sparkles gleefully throughout, a model for contemporary opera composition, and Weir particularly seems to relish composing within the “enormous musical quotation marks” which Assistant Conductor Peter Foggitt’s programme notes accurately attribute to Act II.

It’s perfect fare for youth opera, with a large number of smallish roles and plenty of opportunities for the singers to demonstrate their versatility, both musical and dramatic. As with the music itself, the performers can show off the most in Act II, and the trio of Catherine Backhouse, Louise Kemeny and Peter Kirk have a riot of a time as the “Actors”, juggling through a whole series of silly Chinese characters. Kemeny’s sweet soprano voice was particularly notable, and she had the acting chops as well to characterise a young mother, an old woman, and a sprightly young man, all oddly convincingly. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Backhouse was also engaging in a series of roles as annoying authority figures, and tenor Peter Kirk was energetic and in strong voice. All had as much to do dramatically as musically – including a lot of spoken dialogue – and, like the rest of the cast in fact, they had no problems with this aspect of the performance.

The rest of the cast was also strong, even if their roles were less conspicuously showy: Samuel Smith was a commanding Nightwatchman with a powerful, full tone, and he was fun too as Marco Polo in the essentially inexplicable Italian opera parody which introduced Act III. James Hall’s admirable countertenor made for a sturdy if subdued Military Governor, and baritone Johnny Herford, our hero Chao Lin, sang with a simple, direct, effective tone. The remaining roles were all taken ably by Jean-Baptiste Mouret, Jamie Rock, Helen Bruce and Thomas Elwin, and the quality of their singing made the experience feel like a real ensemble piece.

It was also impressive how well the cast coped with the pretty unusual task of handling various puppets: Stuart Barker’s direction of the piece required several. While they were all beautifully made (the production designer was Simon Bejer), I didn’t completely buy this addition to the piece, particularly as it seemed to smack a little too heavily of Anthony Minghella’s famous Madam Butterfly production which was back at ENO only months ago. The puppets, in fact, were possibly the point where the piece strayed closest to Oriental cliché.

Weir herself usually managed to avoid the glib chinoiserie it would have been easy to write – though that said, I was still a bit confused about why she chose to write a deliberately more clichéd, predictably “Chinese” style of music in Act II – that is, the act which is actually meant to be Chinese music. I felt overall, in fact, that both the story and the storytelling were less successful than the music considered abstractly: Weir’s theatrical conception of the work didn’t have the clarity or brilliance of her music, with the plot not making an enormous amount of sense as far as I could make out.

Clear conducting from Lionel Friend gave Southbank Sinfonia’s account of the score a classy edge, even if a few tight corners weren’t as tidy as they could have been. But it wasn’t meant to be their night, after all, and it wasn’t Judith Weir’s either – it belonged to the excellent young singers, who impressed all evening.

***11