The first opera to be performed in the rebuilt smaller venue at the Royal Opera House is a new work designed for children of 12 and over. Acclaimed children’s author Francesca Simon has turned her own novel into a libretto for rising star composer Gavin Higgins to set to music.
The Monstrous Child is based on Norse mythology: the central character Hel is one of three offspring of the union of god Loki with the giantess Angrboda: her brothers are a snake and a wolf, while she herself has the lower body of a corpse.
In an attempt to thwart an apocalyptic prophecy, chief god Odin appoints Hel queen of the dead; she, meanwhile, has fallen in love with the beauteous Baldr, whose ultimate rejection of her is devastating.
As in her novel, Simon maintains a sardonic tone for her unfortunate heroine – a role carried off with sensitivity by mezzo Marta Fontanals-Simmons, who spends much of Tim Sheader’s staging attached to a kind of giant fungus while a puppeteer represents her as a being with the ability to move.
There’s a comic-grotesque brilliance to the show’s visuals that should appeal to children (and others) with a dark sense of humour.
In her programme note, Simon rightly praises Higgins’ music for its “harshness and energy and violence, but also its lyrical, emotional and theatrical qualities”; his ability to create densely exuberant textures is riotously conveyed by the Aurora Orchestra under the baton of Jessica Cottis.
Strong performances from Tom Randle’s sociopathic Loki, Graeme Broadbent’s controlling Odin, Dan Shelvey’s sunny Baldr and Lucy Schaufer’s phlegmatic underworld gate-keeper Modgud surround Fontanals-Simmons’ star turn as the ultimate stroppy teenager.