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Not Bonnie and Clyde

04/27/2001 -  and 4, 9, 12, 15 May
David Sawer: From morning to midnight

James Daszak (Cashier), Robert Poulton (Manager), Kathryn Harries (Lady), Graeme Danby (Fat man), Linda Kitchen (Messenger boy/Daughter/Hostess), Mark Le Brocq (Commissionaire), Susan Bickley (Wife/Hostess), Menai Davies (Mother), Roderick Williams (Waiter), Gail Pearson (Salvation Army Girl), Heather Shipp (Hostess), Elizabeth Rowe (Band leader)
Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Richard Jones (director)
ENO orchestra and chorus

David Sawer’s new opera, From morning to midnight is based on the play written by Georg Kaiser in 1916. Like Mark Anthony Turnage’s opera based on Sean O’Casey’s The silver tassie, the previous ENO commission for the Coliseum, it is the story of a man’s destruction that begins in euphoria and ends in despair. But O’Casey’s play is loaded with physical and emotional extremes discovered in the war that Kaiser’s ignores in its mildly surreal tale of alienation. Turnage produced a slightly modernist spin on Puccinian verismo, giving the singers plenty of old-fashioned singing, and had a massive success with a work that will probably stay in the repertory because it satisfies mainstream opera-goers without resorting to pastiche or pressing easy buttons. Sawer, in his first full-scale opera, has tried to do something even more difficult, providing music for a static cartoonish narrative (a kind of depressive, German The Simpsons) that reflects the dehumanised despair of its world and, effectively, denies the liberating excess of the voice which is the focus of nineteenth-century opera.

Sawer is well known in the UK as a composer of chamber music, and his music is still on a small scale, sometimes using repetition for emphasis when complexity or simple orchestral blast might be more effective. His austere, witty orchestrations are at times reminiscent of a silent-movie score in their illustrative qualities and musical sound effects. He assiduously avoids any trace of Kaiser’s most famous musical collaborator, Kurt Weill, or any sense at all of German late romanticism (except perhaps for some echoes in the opening scene-setting percussion of Henze‘s Boulevard Solitude, a somewhat similar movie-inspired road opera). The action, not exactly a plot, is also silent-movie shaped: a bank cashier has an attack of amour fou, steals a large amount of money in the hope of a criminal adventure with a beautiful Italian customer, realises that he cannot get away with it and spreads some havoc at home and in the city before accepting death. The cashier’s vocal line has the automatic blankness of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, moving on relentlessly through a range of setting in a current of permanent detached anxiety. Other singing roles are much briefer, at times musical one-liners, but just as impersonal and dedicated to the theme or key joke of the current scene.

Richard Jones’ production uses a set that has hints of Art Deco, and the opening procession of supers past and then into the bank has a touch of Metropolis. But the silent-movie comic style dominates, and the setting is vaguely modern, with a 1950s sitcom house, a roughly 1960s bar, and a Salvation Army meeting with sinners in more or less modern dress. It’s all very funny, but also very intense. There are few laugh-out-loud moments -- Susan Bickley’s ''It’s time I fried the chops'' was one, mainly because of her brilliantly hysterical happy-housewife delivery -- but the complexity that builds up in each scene is engaging if you can tune in. Several scenes are tours de force. One is the opening scene in the bank which seems to set up the mysterious Italian lady who seems to be trying to withdraw money fraudulently as the main character, until the cashier, who has been dutifully processing documents like a machine, apparently oblivious to the hoo-ha and to her obvious allure, suddenly puts the huge wad of money he has just been handed in a bag and leaves. Another is the scene when the cashier arrives home for lunch and acts increasingly strangely while his daughter practices keyboards, his wife gets lunch and his mother watches television and knits until she keels over and dies. Every scene ends with the arrival of the pursuing policeman and bank manager, just too late until the end.

The final episode, when the cashier shows up at a Salvation Army meeting and hears a succession of sinners tell their stories doesn’t quite come off, until the swift and brutally comic denouément when the Salvation Army girl who has brought the cashier there betrays him and claims her reward. There are four sinners, which seems to be too many when the format of their confessions is exactly the same. Perhaps our expectations are too deeply informed by Happy End and Guys and doll, where the Salvation Army babes end up collaborating to some extent with the low life and the music is far more rambunctious and cod-sentimental. The betrayal is certainly the more shocking for this, but the hymns and sins are comparatively dull.

John Daszak, who was involved in extended workshops with the composer and director, was very funny indeed as the cashier, matching singing and action perfectly in a comic style that seems to belong to him although it has echoes of Keaton and Lloyd. He seemed to come through a very big sing unscathed. The ensemble singers were generally extremely good, especially Susan Bickley as the wife and the patronising Salvation Army commander, and Kathryn Harries as the luscious lady. They also fitted in seamlessly with the elaborated choreographed actors and chorus.

The first night audience was enthusiastic at the end of From morning to midnight, perhaps as a result of an explosive release of the tension that built up during the almost two hours of the opera. (There was no interval. It had delusions of old movie length as well.) But there were times when it wasn’t clear that the point was getting over, or what the point was. It’s going to be a challenge to sell this to mainstream opera audiences who want tunes and high notes, far more so than the superficially similar Boulevard Solitude, since there isn’t even the skeleton of a conventional operatic plot with a doomed woman and bereft lover. But the ENO has a good track record of marketing and promoting music-heavy music theatre, most recently Nixon in China, and (perhaps with a few shavings) From morning to midnight should be back.

H.E. Elsom



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