The Ice Break at Birmingham Opera Company online
“The UK border police would like to inform you that we are operating a code red. Be vigilant. Follow the drama as it moves through the space and be prepared to move at a moment’s notice,” explains an actor wearing a very convincing policeman’s uniform. The walls are lined with adverts, cut in half with red paint. Two elevated platforms – redolent of aeroplane wings – serve as stages. The audience stands against a “United Kingdom” airport sign. Dramatic music begins and a woman in a lavender suit starts singing in elongated operatic tones.
The Ice Break tells the story of Lev, a pacifist, who has been released from a prison camp after twenty years. He arrives at the airport to be greeted by his wife and grown-up son Yuri, but their reunion is cut short when Yuri’s girlfriend starts flirting with a fighting champion called Olympion. This sparks a race war which causes mass casualties. Somewhere along the way a bunch of ravers turn up. This is the first time The Ice Break has been performed since its premiere in 1977, and after watching this you can see why.
Every performer in The Ice Break has a wonderfully professional voice and they manage to make everything – even the most banal of words – sound beautiful. This is good, because composer Michael Tippett’s lyrics are at best basic and at worst cringey.
The story doesn’t really make sense. One woman attempts to make up for racism by trying to sleep with Olympion, is rejected and sparks a deadly race riot. It feels almost insulting that years of prejudice and conflict are boiled down to such a simplistic story. An orgy of violence ensues, and one is not really sure what’s happening until it turns out almost everyone has died. Then we’re in a rave. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s clear Tippett was trying to make a point about how hatred leads to violence and violence is bad, but the simple lyrics, unconvincing characters and confusing plot just make it feel basic and sloppy.
This isn’t the fault of the Birmingham Opera Company, who have done their best with what they have. The set design is innovative – the screens which display moving images are a nice touch. Voiceovers add to the drama and make the situation a little more believable. The singing cannot be faulted and the acting is good – particularly Andrew Slater (Lev), whose sad, staring eyes are extremely convincing. The ending feels very apt for what was happening in 2015 and shocks us with a vision of what hatred can lead to. The costumes are very convincing. The placards that the rival groups carry are well thought out. But ultimately, no amount of good production or impressive performances can make up for the fact that The Ice Break simply isn’t a very good opera.
Photo: Donald Cooper
The Ice Break is available to view online from 30th June until 30th July 2020. For further information visit the Birmingham Opera Company’s website here.