Monday 20 August 2018

Keeping her secrets: Tom Randle's Love Me To Death explores the mysterious Ruth Ellis

Tom Randle: Love Me To Death - Gillian Keith, Charne Rochford in rehearsal - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tom Randle: Love Me To Death - Gillian Keith, Charne Rochford
in rehearsal - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tom Randle Love Me To Death; Gillian Keith, Charne Rochford, James Cleverton, Tom Randle, Reel to Real Opera; Tête à Tête at The Place Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 August 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A striking new opera which explores the life and tragedy of the last woman to be hanged in the UK

For the final event of this year's Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival on 18 August 2018 at The Place, Reel to Real Opera presented Tom Randle's Love Me To Death based on the life and death of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the United Kingdom. Randle conducted and directed, with Gillian Keith as Ruth Ellis, Charne Rochford as David Blakely (the man she was convicted of shooting), and James Cleverton as Desmond Cussen, the other man in Ellis' life.

Love Me To Death used a libretto by Nikki Racklin and told Ellis' stories in a series of scenes intercut with video of Ellis' daughter (also played by Gillian Keith) reminiscing, which filled in much of the background to the plot. The accompaniment was provided by a 12 piece instrumental ensemble (single strings, single woodwind, horn, piano & timpani) which was conducted by Randle, and placed at the side of the stage though judging by Randle's rich orchestration the opera is intended for a full orchestra in a pit.

Tom Randle: Love Me To Death - James Cleverton in rehearsal - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tom Randle: Love Me To Death - James Cleverton
in rehearsal - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival (Photo Claire Shovelton)
The work had a full overture, and throughout Randle's music included substantial orchestral interludes. Perhaps the most striking moment was the scene where Ellis' trial should have been, instead with had a long clarinet solo where the clarinettist came on-stage and duetted with Gillian Keith who moved expressively.

Racklin's plot started with Ruth Ellis as a hostess at the Little Club in Mayfair, and took us through her relationships with Blakeley and with Cussen leading up to her shooting of Blakeley (who had abused her physically and mentally), to her ultimate death. Ellis is a somewhat enigmatic figure, after her death it came out that she was involved with the British Secret Service but she went to her death holding all her secrets. Racklin's solution was to use the spoken narration in the video to fill in gaps.

The problem with this was that the video rather interrupted the flow of Randle's music, and created the sense that this was a number opera with film replacing dialogue or recitative. Lacking much dialogue (the music tended to set piece ensembles, arias and instrumental interludes) we did not really get into the minds of the characters. Whilst we don't really know what the real Ruth Ellis was thinking, this is after all an opera not a documentary and having a bit more narrative exploration would have helped. It did not really help that, with the orchestra on stage, balance was tricky and words came over only patchily.

Tom Randle: Love Me To Death - Tom Randle & ensemble in rehearsal - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tom Randle: Love Me To Death - Tom Randle & ensemble
in rehearsal - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival (Photo Claire Shovelton)
This was the first time that I had encountered Randle's music. He is perhaps better known as a tenor, but his early studies were in composition and conducting. His music is richly lyrical and complex, and his writing in Love Me To Death used the orchestra a lot, accompaniments were strongly textured and busy with very little austerity (which made the long clarinet solo for Ellis' trial all the more striking). He writes melodically and sympathetically for the voice (not surprising in a singer), yet does not write explicit big tunes.

The sound world is perhaps closer to Bernard Hermann than Benjamin Britten, and there was a sense of well-made construction about the opera which does not always occur nowadays. As a singer with major opera houses for the last 30 years, Randle knows the major (and not so major) repertoire from the inside, and so this seems to be reflected in the very craftsmanlike (in the best possible way) that the opera was constructed.

The three performaners were excellent. Gillian Keith (looking almost unrecognisable in a blond wig) moved easily from sexy night-club to battered wife to tragic heroine. In fact, some of the best moments in the opera were the solos that Randle had written for Keith, a poignant one after a battering from Blakeley which helped you understand why she did not leave him, and her final moving monologue from the scaffold.

Both the men were deftly sketched in, with each getting solo moments. Charne Rochford was powerful and vibrant as the aspiring racing driver David Blakeley whose violent streak causes such problems, whilst James Cleverton made good-guy Desmond Cussen interesting and complex.

The orchestra, under Randle's efficient direction, provided strong support and gave a sense of real passion to Randle's complex music, a long way from a dramatised run through.

Love Me To Death is a striking piece that perhaps needs a little more development. You sense a larger opera struggling to get out, perhaps with expanded dialogue. But this confident and stylish performance gave us notice of Randle's striking musical world, and of a new and fascinating opera which deserves further outings.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • The Opera That Goes Wrong: Tête à Tête's Toscatastrophe!  - Opera review
  • Bayreuth’s Parsifal provided a sensitive portrayal of humanity overcoming adversity (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • As important as ever: Opera Rara's mission to rediscover, record and perform rare opera  - interview
  • Hubert Parry - the complete string quartets (★★★)  - CD review
  • Out of the mouths of babes: Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (★★★)  - Opera review
  • if there were water - Two different, yet challenging contemporary choral pieces in this striking disc from the American choir, The Crossing (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bayreuth’s new production of Lohengrin has taken the Green Hill by storm (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Exploring advanced techniques: flautist Sara Minelli's New Resonances (★★★)   - CD review
  • Leaving on a high: final revival of Jan Philipp Gloger's production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Prom 42: the first Estonian orchestra at the Proms - Paavo Järvi and the Estonian Festival Orchestra (★★★★½)  - concert review
  • A strong message on anti-semitism: Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Edward Lambert's new Lorca-inspired chamber opera at Tête à Tête (★★½)  - Opera review
  • Still relevant & still controversial: Alex Mills' Dear Marie Stopes at the Wellcome Collection (★★★★½)  - Opera review
  • Home

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