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To See the Invisible review at Britten Studio, Snape – ‘a musical patchwork’

Nicholas Morris in To See the Invisible at Britten Studio, Snape. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
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New at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, Emily Howard’s chamber opera To See The Invisible has been freely adapted by playwright Selma Dimitrijevic from a taut and distinctly Kafkaesque short story by the American sci-fi writer Robert Silverberg.

The central character has been found guilty of the crime of coldness and is sentenced to a year’s invisibility, during which he is completely ignored by (almost) everyone he meets.

In Dimitrijevic’s libretto the character’s isolation remains severe, though he now has a family consisting of a mother, father and sister. His encounters with them and other individuals – in court, in a public gardens and a brothel – ameliorate his plight while also allowing some of Silverberg’s focused purity to dissipate.

In the opera he also has a kind of shadow in the shape of what the libretto describes as The Other Invisible – Anna Dennis’ female soprano regularly in synch with Nicholas Morris’ baritonal male. The character’s dual vocality is undoubtedly one of the more successful features of Howard’s score.

Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s spartan sets and apt costumes work well, as does Dan Ayling’s surreal, dreamlike and occasionally nightmarish production.

The cast are kept busy, five of them – all but the two Invisibles – switching skilfully back and forth between four characters each.

Howard’s score is hard-edged and dense, at its best in the alternately truculent and subtle instrumental writing for the nine members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, astutely conducted by Richard Baker; there are moments in the vocal writing, though, that sound extremely awkward to negotiate. Musically, the result feels like a patchwork.

Parodistic elements – the famous trio Soave sia il vento from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte is quoted at length, alongside a lute song of Dowland’s – are mystifying, and at the end the success of the piece feels distinctly uncertain.

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A confident staging of Emily Howard’s patchy new chamber opera