Rhinegold Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey

Claire Jackson

Review: The Monstrous Child

12:20, 22nd February 2019

The Monstrous Child
Gavin Higgins

21 February – 3 March 2019
Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House

It’s not easy being a teenage girl, particularly when your lower body comprises vast swathes of retch-inducing, decaying flesh. Hel is the monstrous offspring of Norse god Loki and giantess Angrboda, and the captivating heroine of composer Gavin Higgins and librettist Francesca Simon’s The Monstrous Child. The opera, created for a teenage audience, opened the Lindbury season in the Royal Opera House’s shiny new Lindbury Theatre last night (21 February).

The Monstrous Child is based on Simon’s novel of the same name, which offers a relatable retelling of the woes of being a goddess of the dead. Norse mythology is well catered for in the operatic canon, of course, and comparisons with Wagner are ripe for the taking. However, by focusing the narrative around Hel, expertly sung and acted by Marta Fontanals-Simmons, the story feels fresh. The British-Spanish mezzo-soprano is contained on stage by Hel’s enormous legless corpse, which her upper-half periodically lugs around. This, in addition to the soaring, sassy – sometimes angrily spat – melodies and her long green hair, give the impression of a moody, macabre mermaid.

Conductor Jessica Cottis opens the opera wearing a headset; electronics crackle as the Aurora Orchestra bring Higgins’s patchwork soundworld to life (and death: much of the action takes place in the underworld). The music is highly engaging, with interesting writing for recorder and bass clarinet, which chimes perfectly with the vocal lines and the action on stage. It’s always a concern when there are a no surtitles for a new work – will the words be clear enough for the nuances of the plot? – but there was no need to worry: Cottis creates an ideal balance and the singers’ diction is impeccable. (Helped in part by the marvellous acoustics of the new theatre).

The first half of the performance features puppetry to depict the birth of Hel and her two monster brothers, the Snake and the Wolf (‘You’d think after my brother the snake was born they’d have stopped at one,’ sings Hel). The three monstrous children appear from a giant plush vagina, with accompanying shrieks in the vocal parts. Loki, in a sheepskin coat and looking not unlike Del Boy, tells us how he ‘shagged the giant’. While puppet Hel – born with a woolly hat, amusingly – interacts with her family, Fontanals-Simmons narrates from the sidelines. The explicit grotesqueness, though well executed, jars with the second – puppet-free – half, which sees Fontanals-Simmons telling her story in real time. The mezzo amazes throughout; capturing the self-absorbed, under-confidence of a depressed teenage girl through every hand wring, scratch and eye roll. I wanted so much to see more of her and less of the puppets. (Sorry puppets.) But clearly I am not the target audience; perhaps the YA crowd will appreciate them, as they certainly will the film projections, ice blocks and searing score.

The Monstrous Child is at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Theatre until 3 March.

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