In 2017 Alba Arikha, Samuel Beckett’s goddaughter, published a highly successful memoir of her childhood “Major/Minor”, recounting the difficult relationship she had with her father, set in the Paris apartment cum artistic studio where she grew up. The book itself is compulsive reading – one of those which, once started, is difficult to put down, and seems complete in itself.
However, Tom Smail, the author/ librettist’s husband, and himself a composer, was inspired to make it into an opera, first of all in a one-act 40-minute version seen at the Riverside Studios London ‘Tete a Tete’ festival in 2018. This has now been expanded into a full-length work for soloists, chorus and orchestra of eleven lasting 105 minutes and staged recently at the Playground Theatre. Owing to Covid restrictions the orchestrations were performed electronically and I was only able to review it online, rather than live.
Tom Smail began life as a professional jazz percussionist, but this is not apparent in his music for Blue Electric which, live, must have been quite hypnotic in its effect. On a recording it seems to need more variety of pace – it all proceeds at a similar speed – and, even after a few hearings, lacks memorability.
The opera was strongly cast: Maya, the bullied daughter, portrayed by Mimi Doulton, being particularly strong vocally and convincing us of her vulnerability.
Jonathan Brown’s Leon, the father who is still affected by his Holocaust experiences, was quite clearly a tortured soul, using music and especially words to convey his angst particularly well.
Helen Charlston as Maya’s mother was particularly believable in a generally strong and well-rehearsed cast.
Direction of this often difficult to watch piece was in the very capable hands of Orpha Phelan who succeeded in ensuring that the ‘plot’ was always clear, as well as drawing us into the lives of the protagonists.
Eloise Philpott was responsible for the simple set and costumes, and Gabriella Teychenne had the unenviable task of conducting the difficult score. On video, the lighting was often not bright enough or cues were too slow to enable the actors’ faces to be seen, thereby limiting communication with the (online) audience.
I can well believe that in a live performance those watching would gradually be drawn in and find the opera quite an exhausting and moving experience. One hopes that it may be revived after Covid with a live orchestra, and perhaps in a shorter version.
Review by John Groves
A collaboration between husband and wife based on Alba Arikha’s memoir Major/Minor.
BLUE ELECTRIC, based on Alba Arikha’s acclaimed memoir Major/Minor, is a collaboration between husband and wife, an opera of juxtapositions: contemporary orchestral music and bursts of pop, adolescent preoccupations and concentration camps. It is about a father and daughter and the effect – years later – of the Holocaust on their relationship, a subject which has rarely been addressed in operatic form. Music by Tom Smail, libretto by Alba Arikha, directed by Orpha Phelan. Conductor: Gabriella Teychenné.