Parthenogenesis is the new(ish) opera by James MacMillan written in collaboration with Rowan Williams – yes, that Rowan Williams – which should give you an idea about everything you need know about it. Based upon a alleged case of in Hanover during the war, the opera explores the possibility of a less-than-immaculate conception where war is the catalyst for the pregnancy.

No one said this was going to be easy.

Unfortunately the direction makes it even more difficult – whilst musically and thematically it’s strong (although both Sj and myself felt that it could do with being twenty minutes longer to give it time to breath) the direction never quite reinforces the themes that the opera presents leaving the audience in a state of confusion if they haven’t read the synopsis in the programme.

Now this isn’t an argument that all opera should be simple – far from it – but when you’ve got something as complex as this then you do need to make some concessions and spell things out a bit more. We never actually see (or hear) the bomb that is the catalyst for the pregnancy, nor are the themes of the doppelganger ever explored beyond a mere hinting leaving you scratching your head as to what it all means.

Don’t get me wrong, there are flashes of utter brilliance. The framing device of the women dying in hospital recounting the story is superb and filled with horror, the split screen technique (the stage is divided into three, with the left and right sides representing the facing sides of a single room allowing the performers to sing at each other whilst always singing to the audience) is great, although leads to some awkward moments when the cast move from one part to another and like I commented initially the music is brilliant – a creeping sense of dread permeates the whole piece.

This is only the second attempt to actually perform the piece so maybe it’s still trying to find a way to present itself (I could envision a brilliant animated version full of scratchy, painful drawings working) so I am interested in seeing how else it could be presented in a way that matches the quality of the music.

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