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The Ice Break, Birmingham Opera Company review: A masterpiece

It was probably CBSO's most artistically significant performance of the year in this fabulous Birmingham Opera Company production inside the derelict B12 Warehouse

*****
Birmingham Opera Company rehearsing for The Ice Break
Birmingham Opera Company rehearsing for The Ice Break

Birmingham Opera Company: you know the form.

The barely-there publicity, the semi-derelict warehouse venues, the portaloos… But then it starts.

Milling crowds turn into actors; the orchestra surges, and in an instant, you find yourself engulfed in a pushing, shoving, swirling mass of choral singing. The heart revs, and you’re dragged in and under. It’s overwhelming. In those moments, it feels like there’s no other possible way to experience opera.

We’re used to Graham Vick’s company achieving the impossible: but this production of Tippett’s 1977 opera The Ice Break – only the second production in the UK – is arguably a greater artistic achievement even than Stockhausen’s Mittwoch in 2012.

To take an opera that’s effectively been written off; to look past superficial criticism (an electric guitar and a couple of “f**ks”: so what?), to recognise a work filled with frighteningly contemporary ideas and emotions (one whose Mussorgsky-like use of the chorus makes it perfect for BOC’s approach) and then to give it so involving and urgent a production, demands heroic insight and belief.

What hit home first was Tippett’s score: dark, taut, grippingly dramatic, lightened by delicate (but never sentimental) moments of fantasy and grace.

The CBSO under Andrew Gourlay played their socks off in what (whether they realise it or not) will probably be their most artistically significant performance this year.

The amateur chorus, trained by Jonathan Laird, wasn’t quite as precise – but any rough edges in their ferociously difficult music simply added to the sense of elemental energy crucial to Tippett’s riot scenes. They were – just as Tippett would have wanted - a force of nature.

There were problems. In BOC’s promenade format (designer Stuart Nunn decked out the warehouse as an airport lounge), it’s the luck of the draw whether or not you can see the action at any given time. Audibility was an issue.

But we were close enough to sense the commanding physicality of Ta’u Pupu’a as the Muhammad Ali-like Olympion – a plausible figurehead for the mob – and feel the tenderness between Andrew Slater’s weary dissident Lev and Nadine Benjamin as his wife Nadia: affecting performances, sung more expressively than you’d think possible in so large a space.

Ross Ramgobin embodied the troubling role of Lev’s son Yuri with fierce conviction; and Chrystal E Williams’ heartfelt Act 2 monologue may in its quiet way have been the evening’s musical high point.

But the night belonged to the entire company: and above all, to Tippett himself.

The final scene set a shard of hope against a world quickly filling with darkness: protestors, hippy-dippy escapists, ISIS killers. If Tippett’s drama fell flat as a Cold War parable in 1977, 38 years later – in Vick’s production – it seems to throw out more and bigger questions than we’re able to answer.

I’m just going to say it: The Ice Break is a masterpiece and this production strikes me as the greatest thing that Birmingham Opera Company has yet done.

The Ice Break is staged until April 9 at the B12 Warehouse in Charles Henry Street, Digbeth.

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