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Blue Electric/Einstein’s Dreams/Nibiru! review at RADA studios – ‘some strong ideas’

Blue Electric at RADA Studios, part of the Tete a Tete opera festival. Photo: Claire Shovelton

The one thing you can be sure of with a Tete a Tete triple bill is unpredictability. And yet on this occasion the high of bewilderment experienced at the end is tempered by deep frustration.

Blue Electric is the most recognisably operatic of the pieces, a setting by Tom Smail of words drawn from Major/Minor, the family memoir written by his wife, Alba Arikha. We see Alba, as an unhappy schoolgirl, teased by her peers and smothered by a domineering father, a respected artist and Holoaust survivor with haunted dreams. Mimi Doulton and Jonathan Brown sing vibrantly and bring character-depth to the roles of Alba and her father respectively – but even accounting for a broader dramatic arc (this performance features only the first four scenes of the planned work), the libretto is often too prosaic and lacking in drama to support Smail’s texturally complex, post-Romantic score.

The framing device of Einstein’s Dreams, based on Alan Lightman’s novel – readings of fictional letters in which Einstein describes his dreams about the nature of time – is the most successful of the three. The enacted scenes, though, are often so wooden as to verge on parody, and the ballad-like music by Guy Harries is unforgivably thin on substance, with weakly generic piano accompaniment. Despite this, Norman Welch (also the librettist), narrates atmospherically.

Featuring a varied cast of volunteers, Nibiru! (the name of a planet that is hurtling to Earth and about to wipe out mankind) is a techno-pocalyptic party. A video screen carries news reports and updates on big corporations. A single episode from the piece is enough to relay its tone: that of a man shouting the Cadbury’s Flake TV advert tune, while groping a cardboard cut-out of the Queen, as another cast member tap-dances in the background. It’s an absurdist, protest-led piece that generates a unique, anarchic energy.

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Short operatic triple bill that contains some strong ideas also some grave shortcomings