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Between Worlds

Owen Ridley-Demonick and Rosana Ribeiro in Between Worlds at the Barbican Theatre, London. Photo Tristram Kenton Owen Ridley-Demonick and Rosana Ribeiro in Between Worlds at the Barbican Theatre, London. Photo Tristram Kenton
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The English National Opera moves to the Barbican to premiere a large-scale new work. Composer Tansy Davies could scarcely have chosen a more troubling subject for her first opera. Nick Drake’s libretto is set inside the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11 – that fateful day in 2001 that has left permanent marks on the lives of everyone on the planet.

Between Worlds explores the feelings and behaviour of a group of individuals trapped on an office floor high up in the building when it is struck by the first plane. Wisely, it doesn’t attempt to depict real-life individuals – instead the characters are representatives of the lives lost on that day.

The central roles include a Janitor, played with dignity by baritone Eric Greene; a businesslike Realtor, given three-dimensionality by soprano Clare Presland; an Older Man, sung by baritone Phillip Rhodes, who is able to apologise to his wife about an affair before he dies; a Younger Man, afraid of heights, whose fears the Janitor tries to calm – a role sensitively played by tenor William Morgan; a Younger Woman, delivered by soprano Rhian Lois, who wishes she had stayed in bed with her (female) lover even before disaster strikes; and the Younger Man’s Mother, sung by mezzo Susan Bickley, who learns of her son’s fate by playing a message on her answer-phone.

There’s also a more mysterious character – a Shaman, voiced by the unearthly countertenor of Andrew Watts, who comments on events from a spiritually distanced position, sometimes using the words of the Latin Requiem Mass to do so.

Michael Levine’s set utilises three levels, the highest occupied by the Shaman, the middle level the office floor, and the lowest reserved for those outside the tower, including the chorus. Like Deborah Warner’s staging, the visuals blend the real with the ritualised and the semi-abstract. Walls are represented by row upon row of sheets of paper, which occasionally collapse; at other times paper tumbles from above in huge quantities, as if to emulate the dissolution of the building itself.

At its worst, the fragmentary vignettes of the individual lives played out before us seem regrettably reminiscent of a disaster movie, but generally libretto and production maintain enough discretion for the whole experience to hold onto a humane dignity.

Davies’ score does the same. She shows real skill in the more minute aspects of orchestral colour and texture, writing with taste and some sense of atmosphere; but there’s an anonymity about the vocal writing that prevents close engagement with the characters, and too much of the music passes by without leaving a significant trace behind. Gerry Cornelius nevertheless conducts the 35-piece orchestra with commitment.

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Tansy Davies’ 9/11 opera receives an effective realisation in Deborah Warner’s premiere production, but the score leaves a muted impression