"…bleak and beautiful…" The Guardian (Andrew Clements)

Oliver Leith’s chamber opera Last Days has been critically acclaimed following a sold-out run of performances at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre. Last Days, with a text by Matt Copson, is based on Gus Van Sant’s 2005 film. The world premiere production was directed by Copson and Anna Morrissey; French actor Agathe Rousselle played the non-singing lead role of musician Blake. The opera featured costumes by Parisian couturier Balenciaga and was previewed in Vogue and The New York Times. Leith’s score – for strings, keyboards, and percussion – was performed by 12 Ensemble and the GBSR Duo, and conducted by Jack Sheen.

The 90-minute piece sees Blake escapes rehab and return home. As Blake spirals towards self-destruction, he encounters his agent, a Superfan, housemates, a DHL delivery driver, a pair of Mormons, as well as a private detective and groundskeeper. One striking feature is the use of a recording of an Italian verismo­-style aria written for Caroline Polachek, produced by Danny L Harle, which The Times called “heartbreakingly freighted with nostalgia and elegy”. Sound design was devised by Sound Intermedia; the production was designed by Grace Smart and lit by Prema Mehta.

Last Days continues Leith’s association with 12 Ensemble and the GBSR Duo; he composed good day good day bad day bad day for the latter in 2018, and Honey Siren for 12 Ensemble in 2019, both pieces developing the musical language employed in Last Days.  

The piece integrates various recorded and found sounds into the score, both diegetic and non-diegetic in character: Blake’s agent Trip is voiced through a recording of Montana cattle auctioneer; cereal rustles in a bowl and is electronically transfigured, as well as being incorporated into the orchestration; an electronic realisation of a Sacred Harp hymn integrates with voices onstage and then in the orchestra pit. Such elements reflect Leith’s fascination with incorporating mundane aspects of ordinary life in his music, often in an uncanny way.     

The cast included sopranos Patricia Auchterlonie and Mimi Doulton, mezzo soprano Kate Howden, tenor Seumas Begg, bass Sion Goronwy, baritone Edmund Danon and actor Henry Jenkinson as the Magician. Last Days is a co-commission from the Royal Opera House and Guildhall School of Music and Drama; it is the culmination of Leith’s work as ROH/GSMD Composer-in-Residence.  

…exemplary… A meditation on a lost soul that could stand for all those who are driven to despair…This is the kind of compelling ensemble performance that new operas need but don’t always get…Last Days is Leith’s first opera; I don’t think it’ll be his last.

Evening Standard (Nick Kimberley) – 4 stars

Oliver Leith’s opera is strange, surreal and alienating yet occasionally sublime and, I think, painfully truthful….Heavy on slithering strings and jangling percussion, it mostly sounds detuned, unhinged and unearthly. Once or twice, however, it breaks into luscious postmodern romanticism.

The Times (Richard Morrison) – 4 stars

It’s a piece about music – not stadium grunge (there’s no pastiche here), but music as the stuff of life and living: communication, connection, distraction, intrusion, madness. Leith’s score picks out everyday sounds – a telephone, a bin bag of empty bottles, cereal falling into a bowl, a chattering voice – and swells them into something bigger, often something very beautiful….Leith gives us sound loops, holding us in place through repetition while textures shift and mutate. It’s mesmerising, slow-phase sonic drama.

The i (Alexandra Coghlan) - 4 stars

Leith’s score…is highly individual, especially successful in capturing Blake’s debilitating aimlessness as the comic-grotesque irrelevance of the interruptions by visitors or phone contacts that penetrate his increasingly interiorised world. Leith’s music doesn’t seek to impose itself upon the subject: rather, it is as if he has discovered the ideal subject for it to expand upon.

The Stage (George Hall) - 4 stars

…bleak and beautiful…But as it always should be in an opera, what articulates and drives the drama is the score. Most of Leith’s vocal lines are deliberately dislocated, their stresses never falling where you expect them to, though there are some exceptions – a couple of ensembles, in which the voices dovetail in moments of touching beauty.

The Guardian (Andrew Clements) - 4 stars

What this talented team have created is extraordinary…Leith’s score is a sonic tapestry interweaving delicate instrumental effects, “found” sounds, and a cappella vocal timbres…the work is finely wrought…It will be fascinating to see what these people do next.

The Independent (Michael Church) – 5 stars

…reality gets skewed into surrealism… everything is about Blake’s slow-motion decay into nothingness…There is a hypnotic quality to Last Days that worms its way into one’s mind.

Financial Times (Richard Fairman) – 4 stars

It is a triumphantly confident composition….Leith’s score…is starkly original. He favours low string washes, chord clusters and stabs of percussion, into which he stirs diegetic sounds from the onstage life…Ingeniously, he then enhances these beyond naturalism and embeds them into his orchestration.

Bachtrack (Mark Valencia) – 4 stars

…tense strings swell and melt to marinate the piece in a searing sense of weeping melancholia….Leith's work is highly intelligent and subtly protean, morphing organically to subvert expectations…

Broadway World (Alexander Cohen) – 3 stars