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

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.

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

Production Information

Production
To See the Invisible
Venue
Britten Studio
City
Snape
Starts
June 11, 2018
Ends
June 16, 2018
Press night
June 11, 2018
Librettist
Selma Dimitrijevic, after Robert Silverberg
Composer
Emily Howard
Director
Dan Ayling
Conductor
Richard Baker
Set
Ana Ines Jabares-Pita
Lighting
Sally Ferguson
Stage manager
Sally Hughes
Production manager
James Crout
Cast includes
Nicholas Morris, Anna Dennis, Anne Mason, Peter Savidge, Caryl Hughes, Daniel Norman, Nathan Vale
Producer
Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh Music
Running time
1hr 25mins