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Review: VIOLET, Hackney Empire

A thrilling new opera from Tom Coult and Alice Birch

Review: VIOLET, Hackney Empire Review: VIOLET, Hackney Empire Alice Birch seems to have the Midas touch. Not just an award-winning playwright, she has written critically acclaimed films and television, most recently the adaption of Sally Rooney's Conversations With Friends. And now she is a librettist, bringing her protean ear for language to Violet, Tom Coult's debut opera.

The premise is as thrilling as is terrifying. After each day one hour disappears. After twenty-four days, the world will snap out of existence. The ersatz Victorian village where Violet is set is thrown into existential terror whilst one woman is liberated by the impending doom from her husband's patriarchal oppression. It is a far cry from Sally Rooney's twee millennial romances.

Alice Birch's libretto does the heavy lifting in terms of world building. The beauty of her writing lies in the suggestion of terror boiling under the skin of the village, rather than its portrayal. Coult engineers a rich soundscape that broods underneath her sharp language. There are eerie violins and a blood-curdling xylophone that embodies the metaphysical disorder. The music is interestingly often subservient to the language, furnishing imagery rather than carving it. This is not a bad thing; it gives the opera less of an operatic feel and more of a theatrical one, a testament to Birch's brilliance as a playwright.

Anna Dennis's performance as Violet is perfectly bittersweet, nonchalantly brushing off the impending doom and celebrating the destruction of the structures that kept her restrained. Her vocal performance is airy and light, melancholically searching for glimmers of hope in the darkness. Her husband, played by a stalwart Richard Burkhand, is increasingly heavy, weighted down by his hubris. Looming nonexistence is not the issue for him, it is the loss of order that launches him into a turbulent frenzy.

Violet's apocalypse cannot be understood. It is a sheer existential nightmare. Director Jude Christian's staging is tight but rich in symbolism. She evokes the sublime except but strips it of any potential relief. The only catharsis belongs to Violet who has nothing to lose as she embraces death. Christian is also audacious in letting images linger to reflect the uncertainty in the face of destruction: a dangling tree, a hook dangiling centre stage, the clock tower's menacing countdown to zero.

The final sequence, a projection of a computer-generated world with a ticking clock, is the most unsettling of these images. It is an uncanny reflection of our reality that invites its audience to step through the looking glass and consider the weight of what has just unfolded before them.

Photography Credit: Marc Brenner

Violet plays next at the Buxton Internaional Festival on 18 July

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