Raising Icarus review – high-flying chamber opera that packs a punch

The Studio, Birmingham Rep
This mythical story of parental wrongs is well served by strong performances and Michael Zev Gordon’s impressive music

‘A timeless story of parental harm done to children”, is composer Michael Zev Gordon’s description of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. His Icarus opera has been a long time in the making; in 2011 he wrote a brief theatre piece based on the legend, but Raising Icarus, staged by Barber Opera, is the real thing, an impressive full-length chamber opera, to a libretto by Stephen Plaice.

It tells the story of the smith Daedalus and his ultimately tragic ambitions for his son in three succinct acts: from Icarus’s failure to be the kind of skilled craftsman his father wants; through Daedalus’s indebtedness to Minos, the ruthless, impotent king of Crete, whose wife, Pasiphaë, is infatuated with a bull by whom she has a child; Daedalus’s building of the labyrinth to contain that monstrous offspring, the minotaur; the father and son’s escape from it on the wings that Daedalus makes for them; and Icarus’s fatal, hubristic flight.

Galina Averina in Raising Icarus
Louche and languorous with a bluesy tinge … Galina Averina in Raising Icarus Photograph: PR

Plaice’s unselfconsciously rhymed text presents the narrative very clearly, if occasionally just a bit too wordily, but Gordon’s setting of it, mostly in graceful arioso phrases, ensures that the sense come across easily. Only the vocal lines for Pasiphaë, louche and languorous with a bluesy tinge, are especially characterful, but each of the leads is crisply defined nevertheless. The ending, when four of the characters come together as a Greek chorus to reflect on Icarus’s fall, is beautifully handled. Underpinning the singers there is a quirky, rather astringent eight-piece ensemble (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group), which includes an accordion and a trombone, and provides pulsing, restless accompaniments, full of ear-catching detail. Sometimes it erupts in tangled, menacing climaxes.

The modern-dress staging by Orpha Phelan is effective enough, if occasionally rather fussy and twee, but the performances – led by James Cleverton as the bullying Daedalus and Margo Arsane as the pliant Icarus, with Andrew Slater as Minos, Galina Averina as Pasiphaë, Lucy Schaufer as Polycaste and William Morgan as her son Talus – are all strong. And Natalie Murray Beale’s conducting ensures that the drama, very well paced by Gordon and Plaice, packs a punch.

• At The Studio, Birmingham Rep, on 29 and 30 April.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Das Rheingold review – Regents Opera’s lean and mean Wagner packs a punch
Ben Woodward’s chamber arrangement of Wagner’s score works well and, if the storytelling feels unclear at points, players and singers alike ensure a vivid experience

Erica Jeal

14, Nov, 2022 @12:52 PM

Article image
Czernowin: Heart Chamber review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
Chaya Czernowin’s fourth opera has four singers portraying a couple and their inner worlds, but it’s her luminous orchestral writing that excites

Andrew Clements

18, Mar, 2021 @4:59 PM

Article image
Awakening Shadow review – chamber opera adds up to less than the sum of its parts
The five singers acquit themselves well but Luke Styles’s new work built around Britten’s Canticles fails to convince

Andrew Clements

06, Jul, 2021 @12:55 PM

Article image
Opera Holland Park: The Queen of Spades review – decrepit Countess rules over vampiric high society
Rodula Gaitanou’s adaptation, superbly sung and conducted, takes us to a shadowy, nightmarish St Petersburg full of fear, neurosis – and Cossack dancing

Tim Ashley

03, Aug, 2016 @11:10 AM

Article image
Tell Me the Truth About Love review – Streetwise Opera's wedding party packs a punch
With songs ranging from Stevie Wonder to Benjamin Britten to Jimmy Nail, homeless charity Streetwise’s amateur singers have created a powerful and inspiring show

Dave Simpson

16, Apr, 2018 @1:54 PM

Article image
The Miserly Knight/Mavra review – Russian opera double-bill sees Scottish Opera shine
The vocal performances are excellent but it’s Scottish Opera’s orchestra which is the real star of this staging of two contrasting operas based on works by Pushkin

Rowena Smith

21, Mar, 2022 @12:05 PM

Article image
Macbeth review – musically formidable revival of Verdi's opera
Željko Lučić and Anna Netrebko give powerful performances and Phyllida Lloyd directs this imperfect yet intriguing revamp

Tim Ashley

27, Mar, 2018 @12:29 PM

Article image
The Flying Dutchman review – Opera North's perfect theatrical storm
Opera North continues to revitalise Wagner, dramatically presenting his voyage into gothic fantasy as a quasi-cinematic digital experience

Alfred Hickling

01, Jul, 2015 @12:32 PM

Article image
Violet review – Coult’s debut opera opens Aldeburgh with assurance
Alice Birch’s elliptical story of a wife finding freedom as society disintegrates is opaque but Tom Coult’s confident and varied score gives the work power

Andrew Clements

05, Jun, 2022 @2:13 PM

Article image
Macbeth review – Welsh National Opera sing the Caledonian Troubles
The WNO’s musical virtues ally with heart-rending scenes to rescue an ill-conceived Northern Ireland Opera production of the Scottish play

Rian Evans

11, Sep, 2016 @11:30 AM