Itch by Jonathan Dove is based on the popular books for youngsters by Simon Mayo, but it is not a children’s opera, although young teens and upwards will love it. Yes, it starts with Mayo’s clever and appealing idea, that a nerdy schoolboy wants to collect all the elements in the periodic table. But from there it opens out into a really important warning about wrenching from the Earth everything it has to offer.
The opera opens with Itch – Itchingham Lofte – going through his haul: so far he has 32 of the known 118 elements, with the help of household objects and his light-fingered sister, Jack. A pocket-money job in a Cornish mine turned tourist attraction slips tin into the collection. Currently, sodium eludes him. But the quest takes an unexpected leap when beachcomber Cake offers him a mysterious rock.
Adam Temple-Smith (Itch) and Victoria Simmonds (Watkins). Photo: Craig Fuller
A sympathetic chemistry teacher struggles to identify this highly radioactive substance, while a disgraced scientist colleague spots a monetising opportunity. Stealing the rock could win him back a job at unscrupulous eco giant Greencorps. The chase is on…
All of this is played out, most entertainingly and powerfully, in front of a huge representation of the periodic table. You remember, squares stacked roughly seven by 19 with a few gaps and extra, floating lines. The symbols with their Scrabble letters are strangely beautiful: P, phosphorus; K, potassium; S, sulphur.
The periodic table looks like a castle, thinks Itch’s baffled mother, and so it becomes, pushing up turrets and criss-crossed by steps and walkways. The runway around the orchestra that last week drove me to distraction, comes into its own in this brilliantly staged production by Stephen Barlow. In Frankie Bradshaw’s design, with lighting by Jake Wiltshire and projections by Jack Henry and James Fox, scenes at home are acted out downstage, while the dangerous world of scientific espionage unfolds on the other side of the orchestra.
Rebecca Bottone sings the boss of Greencorps. Photo: Craig Fuller
Only 12 players from the City of London Sinfonia, predominantly wind, bring a surprisingly lush score to life. This is not science as dry theory, but infused with wonder and beauty, and Jessica Cottis conducting finds romance and serenity as well as powerful drive in Dove’s score.
Opera Holland Park’s ever-resourceful director of opera James Clutton spotted the operatic potential in the Itch books, commissioning Dove, one of today’s leading composers and librettist Alasdair Middleton. It is a fantastic achievement for a company of this size (there are only about as many involved as there are elements in the periodic table) to stage a world premiere on this scale and with this much potential to resonate around the world.
It is 25 years since Dove’s opera Flight, which was set in an airport, and there are occasional similarities – the controlling coloratura, the mystical counter-tenor. Indeed, some of the cast were in OHP’s production of Flight in 2015. But Flight was commissioned by Glyndebourne Festival Opera, remember – arguably the best-heeled company in Britain. For OHP, London’s most inclusive opera company, to commission Itch and bring to its staging such high production values is an outstanding achievement.
Eric Greene (Nicholas) and Adam Temple-Smith (Itch). Photo: Craig Fuller
Important as it is, Itch is in no way portentous. It tells an action-packed story with wit and verve, and from time to time we are winded by its simple, vital message. As rain thundered down on OHP’s birdlike roof, as holiday destinations burned, as voters shunned Ulez, its message could not be clearer. You cannot help yourself to the whole world, then wonder what has gone wrong.
Adam Temple-Smith sings likeable, energetic Itch, with Natasha Agarwal comical as Jack, Victoria Simmonds warm as chemistry teacher Watkins, and Nicholas Garrett villainous as greedy Nathaniel Flowerdew. There are particularly fine performances from Eric Greene, moving as dad Nicholas, counter-tenor James Laing as Cake and sinister Berghahn, and Rebecca Bottone as the avaricious head of Greencorps.
On the surface a ripping yarn, Itch is a powerfully relevant and timely illustration of the folly of asset-stripping the planet. Having said that, I urge you to grab a ticket as fast as you can. Itch is an exciting new element in the opera world, and one to treasure.
Itch is sung in English with English surtitles. Further performances are on Wednesday 26, Friday 28, Sunday 30 July; Wednesday 2, Friday 4 August. Click here for tickets
|What||Itch, Opera Holland Park review|
|Where||Opera Holland Park, Stable Yard, Holland Park, London , W8 6LU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||High Street Kensington (underground)|
22 Jul 23 – 04 Aug 23, Four evening performances remaining; one at 2PM, Sun 30 July
|Website||Click here for details and booking|