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Wake review at B12 Warehouse, Birmingham – ‘ambitious immersive opera that lacks clarity’

The company of Wake at B12 Warehouse, Birmingham. Photo: Adam Fradgley The company of Wake at B12 Warehouse, Birmingham. Photo: Adam Fradgley
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Under Graham Vick’s quasi-evangelical direction, Birmingham Opera Company’s mission to reconfigure the art form continues with Wake, a new work in which Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli sets a text by playwright and activist Sarah Woods at whose centre is the Biblical story of the raising of Lazarus.

As with Vick’s previous productions for his company, professionals join with some 200 non-professionals to bring life to his directorial vision in a non-traditional space – here a vast warehouse in an industrial part of the city. As the audience enters, each person is given a veil and asked to put it on – though in practice many soon remove them.

The immersive staging takes place on four trailer platforms where small groups of actors play out intense but generalised individual scenes involving aggression (often instigated by the police), compassion, and more detailed narratives, one featuring a small church congregation from which a gay man is excluded.

The audience is steered around the warehouse by other actors, some of them forming instrumentally accompanied choral groups. To one side a much larger ensemble is conducted with keen determination by Jonathon Heyward.

The central story of Christ raising Lazarus is delivered with appropriate scale and commitment by four professional singers, each vocally and dramatically impressive; Joshua Stewart’s troubled Lazarus is well matched by Elliott Carlton Hines’ inspiring Jesus, Nardus Williams’ impassioned Martha by Mimi Doulton’s precise Mary. But their task is made considerably harder by an acoustic that eats up the words, not enough of which register with sufficient clarity.

In terms of overall impact some scenes work better than others; yet despite impressive moments there’s a broad sense of a piece that needs a clearer structure. Battistelli’s score, too, is an uneven achievement, regularly strong on atmosphere but elsewhere registering as little more than background.

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Despite worthy intentions and boundless commitment, Giorgio Battistelli’s new opera lacks clarity and focus