Who can we trust? Should we follow our desires, or be wary of what we wish for? How do we confront fear? Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novella Coraline proved that you can’t be too young for these questions, and Henry Selick’s 2009 film added to the legions of Gaiman fans, appealing to adults as much as it did to children. Could Mark-Anthony Turnage and the Royal Opera really match the extraordinary skill with which the tale was told on the page and on the screen?

Mary Bevan (Coraline), Kitty Whatey (Other Mother) and Ghost Children © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Mary Bevan (Coraline), Kitty Whatey (Other Mother) and Ghost Children
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

The central device in Coraline is a parallel world which starts out seemingly identical to the real world, only nicer. Our 11-year old heroine’s “Other Mother” and “Other Father” shower her with the attention and kindnesses that her real parents invariably fail to do, absorbed as they are in the stresses of life. Soon, though, the vision turns sour, and as Coraline discovers the Other Mother’s truly evil nature, she is called upon to show true heroism and save the day.

Alexander Robin Baker (Father), Mary Bevan (Coraline) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Alexander Robin Baker (Father), Mary Bevan (Coraline)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

“I hope it’s not going to be opera singing”, worried the 11-year old boy in my row (a staunch Gaiman fan but opera novice), to be reassured by his apprehensive father that while operatic, it wouldn’t be in Italian and he would be fine. And he was indeed more than fine, largely because the Royal Opera got one thing absolutely right for this world première at the Barbican Theatre: they brought together a set of young singers who made absolutely sure that every word was intelligible, with no surtitles anywhere near. Amplification of off-stage voices helped without at any stage making the voices sound unnatural or un-operatic.

Kitty Whately as Other Mother © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Kitty Whately as Other Mother
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

Giles Cadle’s sets are well executed, using the revolve to shift us between floors of the house and between the real and “Other” worlds. Director Aletta Collins gets excellent acting performances out of everyone. It’s a tough act for an adult singer to make us to believe that she is a child, but Mary Bevan makes a great fist of it, sprinkling her performance with authentic schoolgirl mannerisms from Rory Mullarkey’s fluent libretto; Kitty Whately neatly accomplishes the tricky switch between absent-minded but broadly benevolent mother to the desperately devious Other Mother; Alexander Robin Baker is a warm, generous stage presence as the Father and Other Father; the most fun is had by the trio of batty neighbours, Gillian Keith, Frances McAfferty and Harry Nicoll. There are some fun magic tricks when people or things disappear in puffs of smoke or when the disembodied hand acquires a life of its own.

But in spite of excellent starting material and a lot of skilled performers, the opera as a whole fails to nail it. It’s a thoroughly decent show, but I just didn’t feel the intensity or elation that was so strong in Selick’s film. In the main, that’s down to Turnage’s music, which was serviceable but very short of wow moments. So every one of the singers sang their heart out, with verve and skill. In particular, Bevan is a fine singer who was easily able to carry off reasonably complex vocal lines, sounding attractive and fun. But only in one number in the show – the Act 2 passage where she describes her father confronting wasps – does Turnage allow her to slow down, take some space and use the voice to heighten the emotional tension. When Mr Bobo’s mouse orchestra pipes up, we go jazzy – but only a little more jazzy. The general feel of the music is spooky, quite appropriately to what is, after all, a ghost story, but the spookiness in the music doesn’t really ratchet up in the crisis points. Turnage and Mullarkey are also less than sure-footed in their pacing of the story: the setup phase in which we learn about the travails of Coraline’s ordinary family life lasts for rather too long, while some of the important events later, as she comes to understand the true nature of things, feel a bit rushed.

Gillian Keith (Miss Spink), Mary Bevan (Coraline), Frances McCafferty (Miss Forcible) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Gillian Keith (Miss Spink), Mary Bevan (Coraline), Frances McCafferty (Miss Forcible)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

Make no mistake: opera’s job should be to entertain while addressing the big questions, and Coraline is exactly the kind of show that I’m thrilled to see the Royal Opera producing. It’s a great story which is decently told and if the result is that people like my 11-year neighbour lose their fear and preconceptions of opera, that’s an excellent result. But it also reveals the perils of starting from great pieces of literature: the original material sets a very high bar which can be difficult to clear.