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Cave review at Printworks, London – ‘an impassioned plea for environmental responsibility’

Mark Padmore in Cave at Printworks, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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The second operatic collaboration between composer Tansy Davies and poet Nick Drake focuses on climate change.

In a ‘near-future’ world decimated by ecological disaster, an agitated man enters a cave where he encounters the spirit of his daughter Hannah, with whom, after taking some hallucinogenic drug, he converses about the need for us all to engage courageously with radical change to save the planet and ourselves.

The work’s creators were partly inspired by a real cave at Niaux near the Pyrenees in southwestern France, noted for its rich store of prehistoric paintings.

Davies scores for just two highly individual singers and some half-dozen members of the London Sinfonietta, the outstanding new music ensemble which has co-commissioned the piece together with the Royal Opera to mark its 50th anniversary.

Geoffrey Paterson conducts a performance that highlights the individual virtuosity of the players and the complex electronic web Davies and her collaborator Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin weave around them.

Beginning with a section that seems to conjure up the world of nature, the score is beautifully imagined, both subtle and refined in its use of a small group of instruments; at other points more violent gestures intervene, hitting home with overwhelming impact.

In her site-specific production director Lucy Bailey maximises the atmospheric impact of the vast venue, while both tenor Mark Padmore and experimental vocalist and movement artist Elaine Mitchener give performances of exceptional range and expressive power. Akilah Mantock sketches in the role of Hannah as a child.

Though there’s a scene between the two characters that teeters momentarily on preachiness in its appeal for us to mend our ways, the opera’s general stance is spiritual, if necessarily troubled. The ending may feel more ambivalent than positive, but the journey on which the audience has been taken is undoubtedly worthwhile.

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Tansy Davies’ new opera makes an impassioned plea for environmental responsibility