Whatever happened to arias? That’s what I was thinking all the way through Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera Coraline. It was essentially a play with a soundtrack (and some warbling). Sure, the music is clever and at times delightful. Turnage gives it a quirky swing which makes one more forgiving of its relentless dissonance. But the music never goes much beyond recitative — and in a story brimming with opportunities for song. At times I sensed we might finally get an aria, a moment to let the heart soar, to make us despair, to chill us to the bone, but it never came. The music is agitated with flickers of promise, rather like a candle struggling to stay alight.
Coraline was originally a superb children’s story by Neil Gaiman. Coraline and her parents are moving into a new house, she finds a passageway to another reality where her ‘other mother’ lives, who seems affectionate at first, but her affection is revealed to be rather sinister. Oh, and in this other reality everyone has buttons as eyes.
Turnage has not compromised his music for the sake of children. A chap behind me went on boringly about how ‘sophisticated’ the music was for a children’s opera. Why do we conflate sophistication with weirdness? Is Berg more sophisticated than Mozart? What this chap meant was that, to enjoy this music, one needs to develop that refined middle class ability whereby, through an arcane process of intellectual alchemy, one transforms crap into gold.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. The music is not that bad. As a piece of theatre it works, and the many kids in the audience seemed to enjoy it. I doubt anyone remembers any of the music though, and I am certain that very few would have enjoyed a concert performance. But staged it was enjoyably spooky. Turnage is a good composer, and even though I’m not fond of his work there’s no doubting his talent. I just wish composers like him would relent on the jumbles of wrong notes, the faux-chord splodges and the unmelodic melodies. No one coming out of Coraline was thinking about the music. They were thinking about the production — in particular, the astonishing decapitated hand at the end — or the acting or the story. The music was incidental.
The one thing I loved about Coraline (and which almost redeemed it for me) was the fact that every word — nay, every syllable — was perfectly understandable. There were no surtitles, and we didn’t them. I am far too ignorant to even guess how Turnage did it, but he did, and any opera composers should surely study the score for this reason. Never did the orchestra overwhelm or obscure the words. It was a model of clarity.