The Silver Tassie, ENO at the London Coliseum

Few operatic events could have been more eagerly anticipated than this, the World Premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's first full-length opera, The Silver Tassie at the ENO. Based on Sean O'Casey's tragi-comic anti-war play to a superbly crafted libretto by Amanda Holden, it has had the benefit of a long gestation period in the ENO Studio.

Turnage's gifts as an opera composer have been maturing since he burst on the scene over a decade ago with his brutalistic opera Greek based on Stephen Berkoff's play. When so many recent new operas lay symbolism on symbolism obfuscating the meaning of the work with difficult music, it comes as a great relief to report that The Silver Tassie is a narrative opera, with exceptionally strong characters with whom it is possible to empathise.

The story is about Harry Heegan, a young Dubliner who goes off to fight in the Great War, is paralysed and then returns home to find his girlfriend is now going out with his best friend. In a lesser composer's hands this could all be very grim and trite, but Turnage writes with such assured ease, both brutal and lyrical, that the opera emerges as the most important British opera since the premiere of Birtwistle's Gawain in 1991 - and, dare I say it, the first great work of the 21st Century.

The action is swift - and Turnage says what he has to say with economy. Act 1 sets the scene in the Heegan household - Turnage bringing the different traits of the characters out musically in a short space of time. Harry and his mates go off to the war, and in Act 2 we are in the trenches. The male chorus here is on top form, and the choral writing and impact of the act owe much to Britten and Shostakovitch yet the music never descends into mere pastiche.

After the interval, we see Harry wheelchair-bound in hospital, his army friend Teddy, blinded. This and the last act really turn the emotional screw as Harry is humiliated in front of his friends when he realises his girlfriend and best friend are now an item. Harry takes the silver tassie in his hands and with the words 'Mangled and Broken. Here is your cup!' throws it to the floor. He leaves and the others carry on dancing.

In the title role, the superb young baritone Gerald Finley gives the performance of his lifetime - utterly convincing and painfully moving. The rest of the cast is as assured with John Graham-Hall and Anne Howells turning in great performances as Harry's parents whilst Vivian Tierney and Sarah Connolly are their usually vivid selves in the roles of Mrs Foran and Susie.

The production by Bill Bryden is traditional but sometimes William Dudley's designs look cluttered. Paul Daniel conducts faultlessly and the orchestra plays this angular score with incredible panache. The Coliseum was packed for this red-letter day and it was heart-warming that Mark-Anthony Turnage received one of the loudest ovations I've heard at the Coliseum for ages. The magnificent birth of a truly great opera and not to be missed under any circumstances!

Keith McDonnell