Collision review at London’s Arcola Theatre – ‘jazzily popular and rigorously serious’

Spectra Ensemble's Collision. Photo: Katie Edwards Spectra Ensemble's Collision. Photo: Katie Edwards
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A cheeky eschatological opera featuring a virtuosic high soprano as the sinister police chief – if that sounds like Gyorgy Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, think again.

Presented as part of the Arcola’s Grimeborn season, Collision is a new opera by the young composer Lewis Coenen-Rowe, but its libretto dates from the 1920s. The writer was the avant-garde Berlin artist Kurt Schwitters, best known for his mixed-media collages. Production difficulties and the collapsing German economy nipped the original project in the bud, and any score produced at the time has disappeared without trace.

Though described as a ‘cabaret opera’, Coenen-Rowe’s Collision does not offer show tunes or pastiche. The through-composed score does, however, evoke the music of the Weimar Republic – both jazzily popular and rigorously serious. It is inventive, coherent, and often quite tough as it strains at the limits of tonality. Directed by Sean Morris, the band comprises five players – piano, violin, cello, clarinet and saxophone – who also moonlight on small percussion instruments, notably at the brilliantly bathetic moment when the predicted collision between the Earth and a rogue planet simply doesn’t happen.

A motley crew of characters career around Berlin after an astronomer discovers the formula for global catastrophe. The six singers are highly proficient, and director Cecilia Stinton keeps things cracking along, but, in the unforgiving intimacy of the Arcola’s Studio 2, the whole thing needs more stylised edge and is 15 minutes too long. It would be good to see and hear it in a larger space but, until then, at least it’s not the end of the world.

Inventive score breathes new life into a 90-year-old Dadaist libretto