Director: Stephen Barlow
Composer: Jonathan Dove
Libretto: Alasdair Middleton
Conductor: Jessica Cottis
A prominent position in a prominent company’s Summer season is a fairly prominent place to debut a new operatic work.
It fully repays the faith shown in it by those who placed it there. Not quite a fully original piece, though it contains a full complement of original musical ideas, Itch is a crossover work. Based on the BBC radio presenter and author Simon Mayo’s series of books about 14-year-old Itchingham Lofte and his passion for science, this is an already popular young-adult fiction story brought vibrantly to the stage.
It follows Lofte (the eponymous Itch), an avid collector of examples of all the elements, and his discovery of a new element which has the potential to provide clean, safe power to the world. Naturally, a many-tentacled multi-national hears of it through a corrupt and criminal science teacher and their greed spurs a back and forth of theft and recovery, kidnap and escape, doom and redemption. Within this exciting tale also lies some more complex struggles and messages on climate change, personal responsibility, philosophy about what the greater good really means and some tough family dynamics.
Alisdair Middleton has prioritised accessibility in his libretto based on the books. The result sometimes feels more like a theatrical script with a musical backing than an opera libretto. Making a virtue of this directness, the lack of pretension and the clarity it adds to the thrilling storyline is unusual at first but comes into its own. It’s helped by contrasting passages where some gentle wordplay and simple flourishes add a charismatic boost to proceedings.
The first glimpse of this sort of ornamentation comes with the joyful introduction to the elements of the periodic table. As well as being an opportunity to introduce some excitement to the libretto, musically it sets the pattern for the rest of the piece. Until this point, Jonathan Dove’s score has been steady but enjoyable. Much as in the libretto, this marks a point where we know there’s much more in store.
Throughout, Dove takes in a range of styles and influences which adds to a rich overall texture and gives us hooks upon which to hang attention on while the vocal line is less than challenging. Though the opera retains lengthy passages of almost recitative style unornamented singing, there are certain wonderful sections with flights of elegance and smooth charisma which are executed wonderfully by the City of London Sinfonia (and deft conducting from Jessica Cottis) as well as the singers tasked with performing select solo pieces. The “elements” song is one such moment. Miss Watkins’ song for Gaia, a soaring hymn to the earth is another, and a chance for Victoria Simmonds to stretch out and impress with a strong, resonant mezzo-soprano voice. As Itch himself, Adam Temple-Smith soulfully meditates on trust and responsibility.
Though he comes and goes as a character, Eric Greene’s smooth, warming baritone is the perfect vehicle to help him carry the emotional weight of the whole piece. There are other feelings, of course, through the engaging story, but this father’s regret at not being there for his kids, and his wonderful, mournful song at the end in honour and praise of his son are the few emotional hot-points of the work.
Holding all this together is a fabulously versatile set in the shape of the periodic table created by Frankie Bradshaw. Highly effective in enabling Stephen Barlow’s direction to range across a huge space without losing the characters, it meshes perfectly with Jake Wiltshire’s lighting and Jack Henry James Fox’s projections to develop an expansive and inviting world for Itch and his adventure.
Some of the plainer sections of both libretto and music allow the energy to wane a little, a shame with such a pacy story. And whether intentional or not (likely the former) the loose ends created by the father’s mysterious job and background are a frustrating narrative quirk when everything else is so well-contained and satisfying. In an entertaining, memorable and satisfying new opera, however, this feels very much like nitpicking and should in no way prevent a potential audience member from rushing to the box office to witness this production first-hand.
Runs until 4 August 2023