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Physician seeks to heal the past

12 April 2013


WHEN, a few seasons ago, Sir Harrison Birtwistle's opera The Last Supper was staged at Glyndebourne, one of the arresting features was a multi-deck set that enabled events in Christ's life to be unfolded in a graphic, novel way. The effect was not unlike a traditional nativity scene, or a Victorian paschal church mural brought to life.

Glyndebourne recently returned to the idea with a three-level rear-stage set, designed by Ed Devlin and Bronia Housman, which adds terrific impact to its latest community undertaking. These experiments plant amateur performers from a wide locality (and beyond) in a punchy staging alongside professional leads of sometimes awesome power and virtuosity.

The attractive idea behind Imago, by the (here) essentially Minimalist composer Orlando Gough, whose music, if occasionally over-loud early on, was vividly brought to life last month by the conductor Nicholas Collon and his Aurora Orchestra, is that a medic and boffin (the tenor Daniel Norman, actually an occupational therapist) has designed a device by which his patients, mostly old and ill, can reach back and reconstruct or reinvent their past lives in their imagination.

This, he hopes, will bring some respite to their anguish, act as a salve, and offer hope within their cramped hospital-ward existence.

The morality and humanity of the work shone through here in Susannah Waters's beautifully controlled production. It presents the community groups - their singing, often energised and vividly syncopated, is first rate - in startling blockings and imaginative wheelings.

Most haunting are the patients themselves, incarcerated in their nine honeycomb cells like a set of Fra Angelicos in Florence, sad and seemingly abandoned; except that a strange piece of black headgear with a lit turquoise strip indicates that they are communicating - with their own past, whether real or imagined.

It is a humane idea, and proves remarkably apt for opera. Pick of a bracing team of performers were soprano Jean Rigby (Elizabeth), a wilful old lady whose life is at the centre of it all (rather like the elderly Rose in Titanic); Joanna Songi as her sparky young alter ego; and two animated boys (James Brock and Flint Pascoe-Easterby), the medic's sons, plugged into the revolutionary online process, each maturing as a result.

Most essential of all was the video designer Finn Ross, who engineered the startling, electronically charged cyber-atmosphere for the whole startling sequence. Glyndebourne has excelled in community work for some years; this undertaking was well up to its highest standards.

Roderic Dunnett

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