Monday 7 November 2011

The Heart of Darkness

On Saturday 5th November, we saw the final performance at Covent Garden's Linbury Studio of Tarik O'Regan's new opera The Heart of Darkness. Based on the novel of the same name by Joseph Conrad, O'Regan and his librettist Tom Phillips have compressed Conrad's narrative into a single 75 minute span. Written for an ensemble of 7 singers and 14 instrumentalists, the piece focuses on the character of Marlow, played by Alan Oke. An element of narrative complexity and a sense of shifting points of view is created by moving between scenes in the 'present' when Marlow is retelling his story on-board a ship on the Thames and action scenes where the narrative is played out. This had the effect of placing Oke's performance centre stage, the opera was held together by his narrative and  around him the other singers formed an ensemble, playing multiple roles. The result, with its emphasis on a single person's journey (both interior and exterior) and the way O'Regan used Oke's tenor voice, reminded me very much of Death in Venice.

Most of other male singers each played one or two roles, but stayed on stage throughout as part of the ensemble; with Nkjabuloo Madlala as the Thames Captain, Sipho Fubesi as the Company Secretary and the Manager, Donald Maxell as the Doctor and the Boilermaker, Paul Hopwood as the Accountant and the Helmsman and Jaewoo Kim as the Harlequin. Standing alone was Morten Lassenius Kramp as Kurtz, the rogue ivory trader whom Marlow is sent to fetch and whose character forms and essential part of the narrative.

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers was the sole woman in the cast, playing Kurtz's fiancee and a strange native woman.

O'Regan sets the text in a flexible recitative shading into arioso, which provided singable lines and enviable clarity of text but which did not quite seem to move anywhere. Around it he spun fine textures from his instrumental ensemble, often it seemed as it the most interesting material was in the orchestra, even when we did have a set number.

The story is all about how Marlow gradually discovers the evil (the darkness) behind Kurtz's apparent success and how Kurtz's personality has a magnetic effect. Ultimately Marlow betrays Kurtz's memory by sanitising the details of his end to his fiancee.

I didn't feel that O'Regan's music quite took us on this journey; whilst it set the text in a fluent and engaging manner, it never seemed to progress into the darkness. The crucial scene between Marlow and Kurtz was telling because of the fine dramatic performances from Kramp and Oke, rather than because of the dramatic tension which O'Regan set up. In fact, I felt little dramatic tension, simply a gentle, equable flow.

Perhaps the structure and length of the piece were partly at fault; it was hardly possible for any of the other characters to develop as they were mere sketches. If the piece had developed things more, then we might have felt the weight of the drama, as it was we were entirely reliant on Alan Oke as Marlow.

Oke turned in a towering performance, convincing and ultimately moving even though at times the character's music was a little too cool and distanced. Kramp, in his short scenes, was most telling and dramatically vivid. All the other singers worked hard and contributed to a fine dramatic ensemble. Maxwell's experience showed and he was able to make his short cameos tell.
In a programme note, O'Regan says that the orchestration of the Belgian sections of the narrative were influenced by recordings from the Belgian Congo in the 1950's, with O'Regan using harp, celesta, guitar and percussion. I felt that he should have gone much further in this, the results were attractive but did not have the sort of vibrant directness associated with such music.

The instrumental ensemble under Oliver Gooch conjured up some lovely sounds and supported the singers well.

The production was directed by Edward Dick with fluently effective designs by Robert Innes Hopkins. Hopkins use of water, combined with Rick Fisher's lighting, created some supremely memorable stage effects.

This was a creditable and fluently effective opera; as it is O'Regan's first then it forms a fine starting point. As ever with creating new opera, finding the right libretto and librettist is key; I don't think that O'Regan has done that yet, so I look forward to his further essays in the genre.

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