From the book of Tobit, Tobias and the Angel is a story from the Apocrypha which is not usually printed in Bibles anymore, due to concerns about its authenticity. However it is an inspirational story which lends itself well to music, and Jonathan Dove’s adaptation is definitely very captivating.

Siobhain Gibson as Sara, Nicholas Allen as Tobias © Tom Medwell
Siobhain Gibson as Sara, Nicholas Allen as Tobias
© Tom Medwell

The story sees young Tobit of Nineveh and Sara of Ecbatana both praying for their suffering to end. Tobit’s father has been blinded and can no longer work, and Sara is cursed, meaning her husbands keep dying. An angel guides Tobias to Sara, and after a spiritual enlightenment, the young man is able to hear the songs around him. Tobias marries Sara, frees her from the curse, and even cures his father’s blindness.

The themes of listening and seeing are particularly interesting for opera, where of course the audience uses both of these senses for enjoyment. The show was preceded by an interview with Jonathan Dove where he said “I like finding the operatic in the everyday”. This explains his natural speech-like melodies and his use of local communities. His influence from Britten was mentioned often, with Dove referring to him as his “hero” and stating that he “blazed the trail” for innovative adaptations to opera.

Sadly, this opera of Dove’s did seem sub-Britten, with Britten’s techniques evident throughout in the melodic progressions and certain weirdly familiar melodies; at points I even felt like I was listening to Peter Grimes. Although this is not a criticism of Dove’s overall output, this piece did not show an individual style, and even though Dove said it is a huge compliment to be compared to Britten, this time it is not for the right reasons.

Operas that do something different are always exciting, and in their first official production, Highbury Opera Theatre have displayed all the right morals. They bring together professionals and non-professionals and heavily involve children, and this church opera was ideally suited to their forces.

The best performances of the evening came from Denver Martin Smith and Robert Gildon. Denver Martin Smith was perfect for his part of Tobit and commanded the stage with his low and powerful voice, grandness perfectly balanced with sensitivity in his blinding and seeing arias. Robert Gildon stood out as the antagonist, playing the demon role Ashmodeus to perfection. His voice was captivating and he matched his passionate words with exciting drama. The female roles, played by Kathy Taylor-Jones (Anna), Catharine Rogers (Edna) and Siobhain Gibson (Sara), also shone, and the eponymous Tobias’ pure singing was well suited to the innocence of his character; Nicholas Allen is definitely a voice to watch out for.

The other professionals were sadly not as successful. Although Julian Alexander Smith sang a beautiful Jewish chant in the wedding scene, the rest of his character was rather over-acted and over-sung. But the biggest disappointment of the evening was countertenor Michael Harper as the angel Raphael. This is the showcase role of the piece, and, devastatingly, he was virtually inaudible; he seemed blissfully unaware of the problem. The handful of passages we heard were absolutely stunning, with incredibly confident high notes, and his angelic stage presence made it all the more sad to miss the rest.

As it was advertised as a community play, I went expecting huge energy and excitement in the performing. Sadly, what we got was an adult chorus who mostly looked bored and the huge group of children facing the stage rather than the audience, so we missed out on them too. The only non-professionals with the required spirit were Raguel’s men, a group of four gravediggers. You could tell they loved to be on stage, which was charming and refreshing. As well as their comical routines, they delivered some funny lines such as “Wed, Bed, Dead” (relating to Sara’s pattern of previous husbands).

Thank goodness also for conductor Scott Stroman, who managed to hold together some interesting canonical sections, and had huge energy and influence to keep the opera flowing. He clearly worked outstandingly hard and has to be admired.

The set was minimal but effective, the sweetest part of which was a bed consisting simply of two women holding up pillows. The young girl dancers were very talented, and their beautiful routine in the river scene really did compliment the music. The staging at the end of the show was sublime, and really saved it for me. The angel (although tragically inaudible) stood in the pulpit with light behind him, and ribbons representing wings stretched all the way to the ceiling. This was visually exquisite, with the chorus stood around the audience singing “Turn to Him with your ears... Turn to Him with your whole heart”; I can see why Jonathan Dove admits he has been moved to tears by his own work.

The evening was brave but flawed, with many missed opportunities. The angel Raphael and the children and adults’ chorus all had the potential to be extremely effective but didn’t quite manage it. I wish it were a longer run, as it has the promise of a really fantastic show, but hopefully future revivals will do the work justice.