I think Jonathan Dove must have had his eyebrows scorched off in a childhood adventure with a Salter Science Chemistry set. It is the only explanation for leading boy, Itch – Itchingham Lofte’s – explosive and eyebrow diminishing entrance in Holland Park’s premiere of Dove’s opera of the same name. Accompanied by cacophonous sound, a bright flash and clouds of cough inducing smoke, Itch literally burst onstage.

Based on the book of the same name by Simon Mayo, Dove and his librettist, Alasdair Middleton were off on an opera romp, in which schoolboy enthusiasm, sharp as a tack comedy, and a highly visual set would temper the serious message delivered amid the melee of action. Namely, that the amateur, Itch, had stumbled across a new element that would either eliminate man’s reliance on polluting fossil fuels for ever, or destroy the planet. 

A child’s book as a modern morality tale? Great risk of the opera morphing into a patronising Coutts-type lecture about ditching anything not conforming to received woke principles. 

Incidentally, my next opera Scratch will star Nigel Farage (Basso Repetitivo) as he defeats the cosmic forces of Dame Alison Rose (Queen of the Banks) who attempts to force him to lodge his “grifter” glitter in the only available financial institution left open to him, The Bank of Piggy. Maybe Holland Park premiere next season? Sponsorship? Not from banks.

Back (thankfully, ed.) to Whizzo, Cripes!, Yikey, Itch. The plot is multifaceted. On the one hand it is about nerdy Cornish school boy Itchingham Lofte (Adam Temple-Smith – very much a grown-up tenor), obsessed with collecting elements, aided by his light-fingered sister Jack (Natasha Agarwal – soprano) and the local beachcomber, Cake (James Laing – terrific countertenor).  

Itch’s 1950s Salter Science Chemistry set apart, this is a thriller. Cake has found a new mineral following an earthquake. The rock glitters, is radioactive. Boundless energy. The discovery of the new element means that everyone wants it.

The dodgy Greencorps – who probably bank with Coutts – which happens to sponsor Itch’s school, is out to snatch it, as well as other more dubious characters. Cake dies from radiation sickness, Itch and Jack get abducted by Nathaniel Flowerdew (English bass-baritone) an evil teacher on the make. 

Greencorps is fronted by the amazingly truly evil, don’tcha hate her, Roshanna Wing (Rebecca Bottone – soprano). Soprano? That’s not the half of it. Dove has written her part as staccato utterances in a range that makes Mozart’s Queen of the Night sound like a basso-profundo. 

Objections poured in from nearby Kensington dinner parties as wine glasses shattered by the dozen. Bottone was brilliant and terrifying. Only a white, pampered, Persian cat was missing to complete the image of world-destroying perverted genius.

After being captured by bad boy Flowerdew, Itch and Jack eventually escape, but both are suffering from radiation sickness and Itch is compelled to return the new element to the earth.

Nicholas Lofte (Eric Greene – baritone) plays Itch’s father from whom he is somewhat estranged. Lofte is involved in work which takes him from home but is never clearly defined. Eventually, dad saves Itch from the mine to which the element is being returned and so not only is the earth saved, but family values are upheld.

BUT. And this is a big “but”, intriguingly left hanging by Dove and Middleton. What if the element, in the right hands, had been the providential discovery that saved the planet? Now, it is lost for ever. That unanswered question makes the opera truly enigmatic.

The set, located behind the orchestra, was an irregular wall of cubes, representing the Periodic Table. The squares lit up as elements as the action required. Front of orchestra was a space into which the singers walked to perform set piece arias. The death of Cake was the more harrowing for being sung within touching distance of the audience. 

Designer, Frankie Bradshaw, Lighting Designer, Jake Wiltshire and Projection Designer, Jack Henry James Fox, presented an absorbing tableau upon which Director, Stephen Barlow delivered a flow of constant action. Not easy on Holland Park’s wide, but shallow stage. 

Dove created a mysterious sound world entirely suited to substances that go poof and bang at will. The opera opens with a high-pitched explosion of sound, then morphs into a catchy rhythmic theme. Childlike, Itch in music. There are short arias of considerable pathos. Itch reflecting on his moral dilemma; Cake dying.

Comedy is never far from the surface, as in the Mozart – da Ponte operas. As a result, the whole piece avoids becoming a pompous lecture on world doom.  

Jessica Cottis conducted and coaxed the City of London Symphonia into delivering the earth moving sounds required. There was one special effect representing the new element coaxed out of “something” by percussionist Glyn Matthews. What the “something” was could not be determined and remains shrouded in mystery.

Dove and Middleton were clearly enjoying themselves and the work took the audience along. Flight is Dove’s other best known opera, about a man trapped in an airport for 18 years. Welcome to Gatwick! Actually, it was Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and the man was an Iranian refugee. 

Clearly, Dove is intrigued by individuals involved in wacky, personal dilemmas and I think he is a highly skilled musical craftsman whose contemporary themes both entertain and instruct. For Holland Park, who have enjoyed another successful season, to top it off with a world premiere of such high quality is a feather in the company’s cap. 

And Another Thing!

This year’s International Opera Awards will take place in Warsaw on November 9th. The Awards, the brainchild of opera buff, Harry Hyman, are now looking for nominations.

Come on, I have a massive shortlist. Just dig into the Reaction back catalogue and take your pick! If the ceremony is half as good as last year’s Madrid event, it will reinforce the Awards’ status on the international stage. 

Harry was at Holland Park last Saturday. In the interests of full disclosure, I was his guest at Itch. I was fascinated to discover that he had sponsored one of the elements – Hydrogen – H. The lightest of the elements, hydrogen readily forms covalent bonds with other substances.

A bit like Harry and his opera networks, which is why International Opera Awards marches from strength to strength.

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