It’s a preposterous story – the stuff of which operas (or the latest Wallace and Gromit) are made: Belgian physicist Auguste Piccard, determined to prove Einstein’s Einstein’s theory of relativity, takes to the skies in a balloon-powered capsule and becomes the first man to reach the stratosphere. Cue the man with the moogs, the instrumental male half of Goldfrapp, Will Gregory, and a timely commission from the BBC Concert Orchestra courtesy of the ubiquitous Charles Hazlewood – and the curators of the Southbank’s Ether festival are clapping their hands. Aren’t they?
The pre-set looks promising. A series of floating discs (bright yellow, bright blue) hint at where we are headed, a chorus of lab technicians (our all-singing, all-dancing “Cosmic Choir”) file in, among them Piccard’s assistant Paul Kipfer (Robin Tritschler) who proceeds to set the scene. Slipping from colloquial speech into the odd sung note – as if in the grip of some musical torets syndrome – Gregory begins his stuttering debut in opera by neatly parodying its conceit. His librettist Hattie Naylor joins in the fun and does a Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer, Anna Nicole) using the chorus as a dead-pan but argumentative sparring partner stating the obvious with crisp, oratorio-like, insistence. They tactlessly remind Piccard that heroic pioneers like him generally end up dead (reiterate to taste); they also make a catchy onomatopoeic jingle out of the key word “relativity”.
But where is Gregory headed musically – apart from too close to the sun? And why is it that talented pop musicians embarking on a commission like this try so earnestly to be, well, “operatic”. Why, instead of writing reams of pretentious parlando over predictably minimalistic ostinati, do they not speak in their own musical language? That’s the great thing about music theatre – it has no prescribed style. But call it “opera” and the likes of Gregory part company with their individuality. A few catchy hooks get subsumed here by canons and fugues and even the much-publicised Moog Ensemble is afforded little more than sub-Doctor Who warblings. Thin? It’s pretty much transparent.
Einstein (Leigh Melrose in a bad wig) gets a number – an embarrassing Broadway pastiche; Newton is all perriwigged countertenorial petulance (Nicholas Clapton); and when all else fails, the hard-working Andrew Shore (Piccard) leads a desperate singalong of the relativity formula. Best gag: “Are you from Mars?” “No, I’m Belgian.” Most obvious parallel: Lost in Space.