Piccard in Space

There is a squeeze on stage for Will Gregory's new opera. Besides the BBC Concert orchestra and conductor Charles Hazelwood, there are a half-dozen Moog synthesisers and a chorus of lab technicians. The first thing you notice, however, is a nervous-looking chap describing his condition. In unaccented speech he tells us who he is (Paul Kipfer, laboratory technician to the scientist Auguste Piccard) and what he's doing (dreaming, specifically about tomorrow's attempt to enter the stratosphere by hot-air balloon). As the emotional content rises, the vowels stretch into song – "why oh why", "no air, no ground". But immediately he checks himself and apologises: "Sometimes I sing. I don't know why."

This, in a nutshell, is what is good and bad about the Gregory's opera. The movement to song is skilfully handled, but the immediate resort to irony, though ubiquitous in today's art-making, suggests a loss of faith in the materials and a tendency to exploit them as effect. Gregory's classical background and electronic-rock present combine in a score that is versatile, varied and full of wit and energy, but there's little holding it together. The vocal lines are given life by parody – but are elsewhere lacklustre, and the production's continuous resort to comic-strip irony undercuts the intrinsic drama of the tale...

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