Coraline fast became a cult classic when Neil Gaiman’s children’s novella was first published in 2002. There has since been the award-winning stop-motion film adaptation, a musical, and even a Simpsons episode where Gaiman’s own voice featured. Now, we have the opera, and with acting royalty and MPs in the audience on press night, even before the curtain is raised there is a feeling that you are about to encounter something special.
Rory Mullarkey’s libretto sticks close to the original story and so for those who know Coraline best from the film, there are some missing characters – namely scar-faced Wibley and her black cat – but the text that accompanies composer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s score, is an amusing and frankly quite wonderful adaptation of Gaiman’s spooky fantasy. This work evokes laughter, gasps from the audience, and perhaps most poignantly, young audience members chatting excitedly to their parents at the interval, desperate to get back in for the next instalment.
On press night, Mary Bevan takes on the role of the adventurous 11-year-old Coraline Jones, bored by her parents and their new flat. Bevan puts in an energetic and very convincing performance as this excitable and headstrong young girl torn between the promise of “whatever you want” in the parallel world of her Other Mother and Other Father’s flat, and love for her boring, but ultimately caring parents.
But, the star of the show has to be Kitty Whately who plays both Coraline’s mother Mrs Jones, and the rather more sinister, button-eyed Other Mother. Whately expertly flits from one to the other, not leaving a trace of either behind. While in his debut for the Royal Opera House, Alexander Robin Baker is the ideal casting as Coraline’s jolly now-inventor father, and the ideal foil for the Other Mother’s wicked plans.
It could be argued that Turnage’s composition lacks light and shade, and that there could have been slightly more definition between the two worlds that Coraline is forced to choose between. In some ways the music, although beautifully played by the Britten Sinfonia and conducted by Sian Edwards, becomes secondary to the set designed by Giles Cadle – which makes great use of rotating scenery – and the costumes such as those sported by the flamboyant ex-actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (brilliantly brought to life by Gillian Keith and Frances McCafferty).
Gaiman’s fantasy translates well to the stage and manages to maintain the magic of the original. What’s more, Coraline as an opera is child-friendly and acts as a wonderful introduction to the genre. This is opera for the next generation, and for that alone, quite a feat.
Coraline is playing Barbican Theatre until 7 April
Photo: Alistair Muir