Tuesday 12 October 2010

Promised End

Alexander Goehr's new opera Promised End was much anticipated. Based on Shakespeare's King Lear and announced by Goehr to be his last opera (he is 78), the work received its first performance on Saturday 9th October at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio by English Touring Opera.

The libretto for Goehr's opera was taken directly from Shakespeare. Sir Frank Kermode, who died in August, had assembled a digest of the play which they reduced to some 24 scenes. Unlike Ades's The Tempest, Goehr decided to use Shakespeare's words directly and had evidently spent a lot of time declaiming the words before setting them.

The result was compact (two acts of just 45 minutes each) and direct, with the vocal line concentrating on a declamatory sense of the words. The problem seemed to be that the music scarcely had time to take hold. The scenes were all short and the opera seemed to be less than King Lear and more a sort of commentary on it. You probably needed to know the play to make sense of the opera. There didn't seem to be much space for the music to register or for the singers to develop character.

It didn't help that the diction was patchy so that not all the words came over. Roderick Earle's Lear was fine in the slower passages but some of the swifter (and important) dialogue got lost. But Julia Sporsen and Jacqueline Varsey as Regan and Goneril seemed to be unable to get much in the way of words across at all. A contributory factor may have been that the orchestra (the Aurora Orchestra) was placed at the back of the stage, with the singers in front, rather than being in a pit. Goehr's orchestration was lively and imaginative, but included 2 tubas, 2 trumpets and 2 horns.

The action in James Conway's production all took place in a relatively narrow strip at the front of the stage, with a setting consisting of some flexible screens and a podium which started off as Lear's throne and went on to double as the blasted heath and Olt Tom's hovel. In fact the acting area seemed rather cramped, especially as the entire cast remained on stage at all times and formed a sort of chorus, commenting on the action.

The cast all turned in strong performances and gave Conway's rather Noh-inspired production their full committment. Despite the generalised western european medieval costumes (designer Adam Wiltshire), the cast had white makeup, bare-feet and used a sand-box when walking onto the acting area.

But strong as the performances were, everything seemed to be over in a flash. No sooner had you struggled to comprehend what the singers were saying (no surtitles), than the scene was over. I felt that some of the strongest and most memorable moments were in the orchestral interludes. Only fleetingly did the sung music manage to achieve any sort of telling memorability, notably in Lina Markeby's accounts of the Fools songs (the roles of the Fool and Cordelia were doubled). The biggest failing seemed to be the lack of any strong emotional pull in the role of Lear, despite Earle's sterling work.

Nigel Robson was a noble Gloucester with Adrian Dwyer and Nicholas Garrett as his sons. Their plotting came off best, perhaps because Garrett was adept at conveying much by simple body language and Dwyer was the most incisive in getting the words over.

The Aurora Orchestra under Ryan Wigglesworth made a strong orchestral contribution.

I had been looking forward to this opera for some time and was profoundly disappointed that it did not have a stronger effect on me. The Brechtian cast of the work meant that I admired it rather than loved it; the piece was a voyage around Lear rather than being Lear.

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