Birmingham Opera Company has long cherished the ambition of commissioning and producing a new opera. The result – Jonathan Dove’s Life is a Dream – is inspirational. Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton have created a big, richly dramatic opera with a compelling plot, peopled by fascinatingly human characters. In short, it’s the real thing, performed with bravura by a company at the top of its game.
Dove’s through-composed score is wonderfully lyrical and immediate. Played with verve under the baton of William Lacey, its influences were easy enough to spot: equal parts Puccini and John Adams, with vivid splashes of Janacek, Britten and – in the chimes that light up the texture whenever there’s a moment of transcendence - Richard Strauss. That’s a telling detail. The opera is an adaptation of the same Calderón drama that Strauss’s collaborator Hofmannsthal re-worked as The Tower-around the same time as he was devising his great outdoor folk-theatre spectacles with Max Reinhardt.
Graham Vick’s Birmingham productions belong to that tradition. The vast hangar of the Argyle Works housed a car, a ceiling-to-floor staircase and a circular runway around the orchestra, leaving open spaces for the audience to mingle with the chorus – some dressed for family celebrations, others huddled in nightwear, still others imprisoned within walls, but all inhabiting their roles with eerie intensity. The unsettling atmosphere that resulted was one of Vick’s major achievements, just as powerful as the choral scenes in which, as Dove’s music swelled, crowds surged and rushed through the audience.
Eric Greene sang the imprisoned prince Segismund with a gorgeous bronzed tone, veering grippingly from confused dreamer to brutalised thug, while Wendy Dawn Thompson matched him for commitment in the ambiguous role of his would-be redeemer Rosaura. Keel Watson brought troubled humanity to the part of Segismund’s jailer Clotaldo and Joseph Guyton and Donna Bateman alternately sparkled and sneered as the lovers Astolfo and Estella.
Paul Nilon’s noble singing, meanwhile, belied his shambolic, Jim Royle-like appearance as King Basil. Indeed, the most questionable aspect of the production was Vick’s decision to set the opera in a suburban world of floral carpets and battered armchairs. It sat oddly with this epic drama; especially when Rosaura brandished a gleaming sword (complete with suitably Wagnerian leitmotif). Perhaps Vick’s intention was to emphasise the difference between operatic dream and mundane reality. But the very fact that it’s already possible to imagine alternative stagings proves that Life is a Dream has the potential to enter the repertoire. A magnificent achievement.