Friday 20 February 2009

Another review that wasn't

No, we haven't had any more power cuts. But last night (Thursday) we went to Sadlers Wells to see Opera North's production of David Sawyer's new operetta, Skin Deep. Having read the reviews following the first night in Leeds, I was aware that the piece might have issues but we went with open ears, hoping to be delighted and entertained.

The piece is an operetta in the strict sense of the word, in that it's subject is relatively light (a satire on cosmetic surgery) and it uses spoken dialogue. Whatever you think of Armando Iannucci's libretto, it does seem to be written using operetta forms; not only does it rhyme, but seems to be structured in terms of aria, ensemble, dance number etc. The draw backs of the libretto are that the plot itself is rather trivial and it seems a little on the wordy side. But I must confess that I was rather more impressed with the libretto that I expected to be, following the critical comment I had expected it to be far wordier than it is. Mind you, Iannucci does not seem to have taken on board Martin Crimp's comment that a libretto should always have something missing. You feel that Iannucci's libretto would make quite an adequate sit-com.

What it doesn't do is make an adequate opera.

I'm not quite sure where the root problem lies. David Sawyer has obviously worked very hard and his music is accomplished, but he does not strike me as a natural light-music composer. Simply, this was an operetta without tunes. More importantly, Sawyer seems to have eschewed closed forms. I think that the piece would have worked, even without tunes, if we had had a series of set pieces written using closed forms (march, waltz, beguine etc.). As it was we had neither.

Now, it is perfectly possible that Sawyer thinks that the work does have tunes and does use closed forms. This can often happen when writing, you get so close to the music that you don't always realise what people can (and can't) apprehend. (On a personal note, I've written a few pieces which I think are very tuneful but which other people simply hear as mournful noodling round in a plainchant-esque way).

If you played a recording of the work, without telling anyone the subject matter, then I doubt that the listener would have realised that Skin Deep was supposed to be funny. It doesn't sound funny.

The cast all worked very, very hard. But usually you had to strain to grasp the words and the laughs all came from Richard Jones's production. This was not one of his better affairs. Jones seems to have decided to stage the libretto rather than the music, so that we got farce with the odd production number. These latter came over very awkwardly as it is difficult doing a big song/dance number with music which does not seem to fit the genre.

The opera is in 3 acts with an interval after act 2. When the interval came (at 9pm after 90 minutes of music), neither of us could face going back for the final act. My companion didn't like the music much (an thought the plot puerile) and I found that I just didn't care about what was happening on stage. So we left. I am prepared to believe that staying for Act 3 might have changed our opinions, but I am not convinced that it would have done.

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