Contemporary opera

I am not an opera buff. The last and I think only time I saw any opera was some 20 years ago when I was a student. It was something in Italian (I think) and one of our party fell asleep.

But this week I have twice seen the most amazing new piece of opera, composed by Jonathan Dove who I’d never even heard of until this week but whose work transfixed me.

The performance was 50 minutes long and took place in Salisbury Cathedral as part of the Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival. It’s called The Walk from the Garden and is based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost but specifically the very end of that epic poem, the last 18.5 lines or as librettist Alasdair Middleton wrote in the programme “a hundred and thirty-five of the best words ever written”.

You have to put aside – as I did – any reservations about the story of Adam and Eve. Forget truth, forget feminism for an hour. It’s a very old story and a very well-known one.

The Walk from the Garden is so moving as a piece of music and a performance by two superb voices, backed by a choir, that you simply have to go and see it if you can.

It’s very loud to start with: the choir of angels sing out Adam and Eve’s condemnation. Then poor Adam (Nicholas Sharratt) and Eve (Anna Dennis) burst through steel grey double doors wearing just white underwear and socks. The doors are marked ‘Exit’ which reads back to front. The audience, although in a cathedral, is already sitting in perpetual banishment on the other side of Eden. There is no going back.

The pair assess their new situation and surroundings: “Ash… Trash.” They recall with terrible anguish the “shattered harmony” they knew; they remember with leaping joy hearing “the voice of God walking in the garden”.

But anguish, desperation and loss dominate the piece. The voices are exquisite. At times Dennis’ voice as Eve seemed to literally grow out of the few stringed instruments playing the piece.

Gradually the pair get dressed in modern-day walking gear, put on their waterproof capes and hoist rucksacks on their backs. Slowly, they walk down the central aisle, past the incredible rimless font that sits in Salisbury Cathedral, and out of the west doors. For a few seconds their forms are framed by the medieval doors and they catch dying rays of summer light as the pair walk into a rush of greenery in such contrast to the penumbrous cathedral interior. Some of the angelic choir emerge through the steel grey doors to sing Adam and Eve on their solitary way.

I found it incredibly moving. I think you can see Adam and Eve’s walk from the garden as both a liberation and a condemnation.

As Milton wrote, “The world was all before them.”