Monday 19 March 2012

Judith Weir's Miss Fortune at the Royal Opera House

We went to the 2nd performance of Judith Weir's new piece, Miss Fortune, on 15th March at the Royal Opera House. The piece is a co-production with the Bregenz Festival where it was first performed last year (in the Bregenz theatre not on the open-air mid-lake stage). Weir has written her own libretto based on a Sicilian folk-tale. As with most folk-tales, the story is rather elliptical which, of course, would seem to entirely suit Weir's own music.

Essentially a series of misfortunes happen to a young woman, Tina (Emma Bell), starting with her parents losing their money. Each misfortune is created by Fate (Andrew Watts) and it is only when Tina finally stands up to Fate and ultimately rejects his intervention which would have given her a winning lottery ticket, that she takes control of her life.

The opera is quite short and concise, the first act lasts 55 minutes and the 2nd act 35 minutes. The action all takes place in the present day, with Tina's adventures occurring in a factory, a kebab-van (run by Hassan - Noah Stuart) and a laundrette (run by Tina - Anne Marie Owens). The final scene, in which all the ends are neatly knitted up, is a little too long. Tina's parents reappear (Alan Ewing and Kathryn Harries) having lost all their money; Simon (Jacques Imbrailo), a rich young man who has his shirts laundered at the laundrette, gives Hassan the money to buy a new van (the old one having been burned down), and falls in love with Tina.

Judith Weir's music was approachable and beautifully wrought, though at times I thought that the real interest lay in the orchestra rather than singable but not very arresting vocal lines. There were some lovely moments, but somehow they didn't add up. In the first half, none of the scenes stayed long enough to make a big impression. The fact that Tina's character is so reactive, means that the drama becomes simply a picaresque journey. Bell worked hard and was extremely engaging, but the character never quite drew your sympathy sufficiently.

The production, directed by Chen-Shi-Zheng, with sets by Tom Pyre and costumes by Han Feng, was visually arresting, flowed smoothly and ensured our interest, Though its very slickness perhaps detracted from an element of grittiness which would have helped the drama. The inclusion of break-dancers as Fate's side-kicks was a curious idea. Very little of Weir's music seemed to be at the requisite speed and intensity to match the dancers movements, so often they seemed to be dancing in a vacuum.

The cast were all hard working and formed a brilliant ensemble. Conductor Paul Daniel seemed to be able to conjure the requisite sounds from the orchestra and kept the drama flowing. He ensured that Weir's fine orchestration made its mark and there were some lovely moments.

Ultimately I felt that the opera was in the wrong theatre. Miss Fortune seemed to be designed to fit into the closer, more intimate confines of the Linbury Theatre. I wanted to hear it in a smaller scale, tauter, tighter performance in a production which was less glossy and gave some of the drama a genuine edge. At the moment, the piece feels as though it hasn't quite find its niche.

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