Can we cope with operas set in the present?

30 Sep

How many successful operas are set in the time that they were written?  There aren’t many and most of those that are (the Mozart/da Ponte three, Don Pasquale, Fledermaus spring to mind immediately) tend to be comedies. It may not be a coincidence that Traviata, for the first few years of its performances had to be moved back to a generation before.  It’s not an absolute rule – Fidelio is an example – but I wonder if there is something about a very artificial form which makes it difficult for audiences to accept operatic emotions in a contemporary setting: words written in a contemporary idiom sound odd if sung (it always moves more slowly) and words in a heightened language sound silly.  Put the clock back, some different costumes and it all seems a bit easier.

These thoughts were raised when seeing Music Theatre Wales’s latest double bill of new operas at the Linbury on 27th September. Both were strong, intelligent works but neither worked perfectly.  Of course, it isn’t just about the setting: I often think that many contemporary composers aren’t that comfortable with many of the forms that make opera successful – Turnage, Ades and Dove apart, when was the last time you heard a decent ensemble in a modern opera?

For me, the more successful of the two was Huw Watkins’s In the Locked Room. David Harsent has written libretti before and this struck me as a reasonably successful updating of a Hardy short story about a woman who becomes obsessed by a poet who turns up occasionally to stay “in the locked room”  in the house she and her husband are renting. Harsent’s text avoids too much of the “pass the butter” sort of writing that can get tedious, but it does feel odd to have singers singing “okay” and Stephen (the husband)’s description of his deal did not really ring true. The piece was at its strongest in the reflective scenes, particularly where Sue was narrating what she knew of Pascoe, the poet, the very short scene for the two of them together and in portraying the growing obsession Ella, the wife, with the poet.  I admired hugely the way Watkins was able to set t he words and create individual musical personalities, the kindness of his orchestral writing and the way in which he was able to convey atmosphere. I still wondered whether it might not h ave been as well to set this at the time of the Hardy story.  But I’d like to see Watkins do a full length opera and I’ll listen out for his other music.

I was less taken with Stuart MacRae’s The Ghost Patrol. At one level it’s a love triangle reminiscent of Tabarro or Florentine Tragedy as a jealous husband ends up killing his wife’s lover, but it’s also intended to be a commentary on the way in which experiences of war wreck lives. I wasn’t greatly convinced by Denise Walsh’s libretto which struck me as quite repetitive in way that the music couldn’t quite cope with – altogether too much of the girlfriend appealing to them to put the fighting behind them. Similarly the scene between Sam and the girlfriend  had attractive music but the text didn’t go very far.  Nor did I think that Macrae’s music created much in the way of characterisation or the sort of simmering, brooding tension that the piece needs. It felt longer than its 50 minutes though, again, you had to admire the sensitive orchestral writing and the way in which the slightly military, percussion stayed in the background as a reminder of battle.

I couldn’t fault the singers who sang clearly and with commitment.  In the Watkins, Louise Winter was marvellously clear and sensitive as the motherly Susan, Ruby Hughes has a very lovely voice and created the growing alienation and obsession of Ella really well.  Hakan Vramsmo as the eternally present poet, Pascoe, was excellent and Stephen Curiewici was strong as the deal-obsessed Stephen.  In the MacRae, Nicholas Sharratt sang clearly and suggested the love for Jane Harrington’s Vicki.  As her jealous boyfriend, James McOran-Campbell had the physique to withstand the scrutiny of having to play the whole of the first scene in only his underpants and sang well. I just wished that they they had something more meaty to work with.

Michael McCarthy directed the Watkins, perfectly acceptably, but I felt that this was a piece which almost needed a more traditional, concrete setting than it had – essentially a bare stage around a model of the house.  Pascoe picked his way around without every really being clear what his role was.  Nevertheless, he drew good acting performances from the cast.  The MacRae is probably easier to direct and Matthew Richardson did it as well as you could ask.

Michael Rafferty conducted admirably I had much admiration for the orchestra and the preparation.  I very much admire the way MTW gives the opportunity for composers to develop and for new operas to be heard.

I hope what I’ve written isn’t too grudging. This made for an enjoyable and stimulating evening.  I think most opera lovers will find it accessible and I’d urge them to go.  I still felt, however, that here were two talented composers who aren’t yet quite at ease with the form.

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