Reviewed by Lewis Cuthbert
Review Date: 01/12/15

Miracle! An Opera of Two Halves

from Music in the Minster

27th November 2015 @ Sunderland Minster

While Black Friday raged through the towns and high streets of the north, I spent the dark and stormy evening enjoying a much more positive example of community spirit. Miracle! – two years in the making – is the operatic tale of Angelo (Jonathan Cooke), the seraph propelled down to Earth to help put Sunderland FC at the top of the league. Music was composed by Marcos Fernandez and conducted by Marco Romano while the libretto came from Newcastle-born David Almond, perhaps most famous for the novel Skellig.

The choral arrangements and orchestral music were stirring and exhilarating, accurately pinpointing and expressing the frequent feelings of ‘despair, rising hope and belief against the odds’, to quote the programme, but what came across most impressively was the sense of local pride and unity. With such projects there is always the danger that the result can seem provincial and of no relevance to a wider audience. This was keenly batted away by talk (well, singing) of the universal themes of love and passion. The experience of desperate longing and eventual gratification can be appreciated by anyone, football fan or not. Certainly the booming resonance of Cooke during a piece in which he repeated ‘What can I do?’ was wonderfully moving and evocative.

It is also worth noting soprano Caroline Kennedy whose Veronica, the down-to-earth love interest, was gorgeously quirky and projected a believable frisson with Cooke’s Angelo. Ian Priestley’s character work switching from the part of God to manager Larry Trench was very effective, without having looked at the programme I didn’t know he was playing both, but while his baritone was beautiful sadly I could only make out half of his lyrics from my seat near the back. Considering his twenty years’ experience, fully evident in the voice, this must have been an issue with the acoustics.

Rather samey video footage of football fans was deployed at the back (near a gate to represent The Stadium of Light) to little effect, but this does lead to a nice device involving angelic wings near the end. Director Annie Rigby along with production designer Gayle Playford created an intimate world of fans and players, vying against each other for the same goal within the tight space. At times the action felt repetitive and lost my interest but I’m unsure what else they could have done. The recurring appearances from the excellent and excitable youth choir certainly kept up the energy. Pew seating is never comfortable but thankfully – and cleverly – there were only forty-five minutes’ either side, without extra time. That may have been the extent of the wit as the lyrics themselves often failed to scale the heights of beatific poetry surely expected of opera.

Or perhaps it merely didn’t appeal personally because of my lack of interest in football… But it should have drawn me in, should it not? It is true that you, an audience member, must do a bit of work if you are to enjoy a work of art – that patience and understanding can pay dividends, leaving you with an experience that will follow you for the rest of your life, informing and enriching all your views on future works – but Miracle! did not seem to have that much to offer beneath the surface of gorgeous music, for the sustainment of which Music In The Minster must be praised and I hope they carry on for years to come. Ultimately, despite the fact it didn’t turn me on to opera or supporting Sunderland, the warm feeling left in the hearts of those assembled in church on that cold and dreary night is surely accomplishment enough.