Sarah Angliss: Giant at Aldeburgh Festival | Live Review

Michael White
Monday, June 12, 2023

An utterly compelling sound world from Sarah Angliss's first opera to open the 2023 Aldeburgh Festival

Karim Sulyman and Gweneth Ann Rand | © Marc Brenner



For once, the title didn’t say it all. You might have thought that Giant, the new opera premiered at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, would be a fairy story. On perhaps a massive scale. But no: it was a relatively small piece, eighty minutes without interval, based on true facts of such historic darkness that the Festival forewarned its audience about distressing scenes of body-snatching, autopsy and mutilation.

That said, what we ultimately saw was nothing bloodier than an average Salome or Tosca, and far more restrained than Sweeney Todd: a piece that could have been a point of reference had Giant been more brazen, bold and mischievous. Instead it told in understated, almost dreamlike terms, the story of a moral conflict between science and decency. An 18th Century surgeon called John Hunter uses stolen corpses for his research,  and particularly wants the body of an eight-foot giant, Charles Byrne - which he attempts to get when Byrne is still alive, by mutual agreement. Byrne refuses and, before he dies, makes efforts to ensure his corpse remains inviolate. But Hunter steals the body and submits it to the scalpel, justifying what he does as  for the greater good.

Such is the issue at the opera’s heart, and it’s approached in balanced, grown-up  terms, with Byrne and Hunter both depicted sympathetically as the antagonists. So far so good. But the composer Sarah Angliss has no past experience in opera; and though Giant has been workshopped at Aldeburgh under the auspices of Britten Pears Arts who commissioned it, the piece needs more thinking in terms of proportion, shape and pace – because it comes across as work still very much in progress, with a clunkily self-conscious text by Ross Sutherland and general sense of insecurity. Of floundering camouflaged as stealth.

Steven Beard | © Marc Brenner

The staging, though, was interesting, done by Sarah Fahie on a simple module set in Snape Maltings’ Britten Studio: a space where staging has to make a virtue of simplicity because facilities are limited. Seemingly made out of used materials, the module morphed Hunter’s dissection lab into both the circus where Byrne in life displays his body to a paying public  and the exhibition space where his deceased remains eventually go on show . And as the costumes - a vague 18th Century/modern patchwork -  looked as though they’d been resourced from charity shops, I did wonder if the production was making a point of sustainability.

Either way, what sustained the show in practice were pin-sharp performances from the five singers/one actor who were the cast - led by Jonathan Gunthorpe who made a credibly rounded figure of Hunter, and Karim Sulayman who touched hearts with a deeply affecting portrayal of Byrne (wearing moon boots to look tall). And singing aside, what made the whole thing memorable was its bizarre but utterly compelling sound world.

The cast of Giant | © Marc Brenner

Sarah Angliss is by background a recording engineer and steeped in tech. But equally, she’s drawn to early music/period performance. And her score for Giant brings the two together, magically, with a small consort including recorder, viola da gamba and spinet alongside an array of electronica, some of it specially devised by Angliss to fit her needs.

The result is a distinctive tinta (to use Verdi’s word) that sets the piece apart, wrapping the sung text in subdued haloes of sound - much of it bell-like, delicate, inviting careful listening, and astonishingly beautiful in ways that seem to heal the wounds of Hunter’s scalpel and absorb the gore. As theatre, Giant may not be there yet, but as music it’s miraculous. Which makes it worth the time and effort of revision.

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