‘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.
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.