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In the back of the cave

Guildhall School of Music and Drama
06/07/2001 -  and 9,11, 11 June
Andrew Schultz: Going into shadows
Barry Martin (Tarik), Natasha Jouhl (Bernadette), Adrian Dwyer (Damon), Alenka Ponjavic (Caitlin), Franck Lopez (Drunken customer/Customs officer), Andrew Rees (Jack Johns), Lise Christensen (Mary), Douglas Bowen (Patrick), Helen Withers (Interrogator), Rasmus Tofte-Hansen (Interrogator), David Clegg (Judge), Claire Platt (First prosecutor), Haydn Jones (Second prosecutor), Sarah Redgwick (Jasmine), Breffni Horgan (Priest)

Guildhall Chorus and Orchestra

David Porcelijn (conductor), Stephen Medcalf (director)

Andrew Schultz's new opera Going into shadows, with a libretto by his journalist sister Julianne Schultz, comes with an intimidating set of notes about the power of the mass media and the way reality is always already fictionalised for us. The production has video cameras on stage which project the action, and more often the scene changes, in real time. But the core of the opera turns out to be an old-fashioned tragic love story, with a bitter twist of vengeance, and where it succeeds it is at least in part because the problematization of everything can't disguise the power of the story. The music, similarly, is eclectic, and the notes suggest a focus on cross-cultural appropriations and the transformation of motifs (basses rumble away like a distant explosion when danger looms). But the performances are straightforwardly expressive, quite possibly to the credit of the singers and director as much as the composer.

The shadows of the title are the false reality that news reporting creates. The plot is based on something that happened in 1986, but everything is made uncertain. Bernadette, an Irish woman working in a hotel in London, falls in love with Tarik, an art dealer who is exiled from his own country. She becomes pregnant, and he agrees to marry her, saying they should go to his homeland for the ceremony. He gives her a gift to carry for his family and puts her on a flight without him. But the gift contains a bomb and she is detained at security. Initially unsure what is going on, she is persuaded by the reporter Jack Johns to denounce Tarik in court. When Tarik comes out of prison sixteen years later, his daughter Jasmine is persuaded by Johns to meet him. She kills him on camera as revenge for his betrayal of her mother.

The response of a London audience to all of this might well still be coloured by memory of the actual events. In the opera, we are meant to see Bernadette's denunciation as an act of treachery (to Tarik, to her love) forced on her by a tabloid cheque, and at the end, the journalist hints that Tarik could have been set up after all, presumably by his more radical friend Damon. But the actual case was clear: whoever was behind the bomb, the person corresponding to Tarik definitely meant to blow up a plane carrying his pregnant girlfriend. While it is possible to reflect evenhandedly on the historical and political background, and perhaps on the cultural spin of the news coverage of the story, few would doubt that the man was a complete shit. And the media on the whole didn't bother the unlucky woman, who came over in a rare BBC radio interview as admirably free of self-pity or self-dramatization. It isn't yet particularly easy to convert these people into Verdian tragic figures. And the opera, in contrast to, say, Nixon in China, doesn't seem to acknowledge that the opera itself at many stages in its history has had a similar effect to the press in creating heroes and villains.

There is much else that doesn't work: Bernadette is loaded with a detailed but utterly stereotypic background in the Troubles and a previous abortion that weighs her down with guilt in spite of her initially optimistic character. Her sister Caitlin is the voice of damaged cynicism, sexually uptight and despairing of an end to the (generic) killing. One or other of the themes of sexual guilt or political oppression might have been useful here; trying to get them both in looks like working too hard to deliver what the audience expects. Conversely, we learn about Tarik's background only that he is a Moslem in political exile, and nothing at all about a motive for the attempted bombing. (The production hints that he is West African, but his sidekick Damon appears to be from the Middle East.) This makes it difficult either to identify with him or to despise him, and to understand what Bernadette feels beyond sexual attraction, though in this production Barry Martin has enough personal and vocal presence in the role to avoid a complete vacuum at the centre of the plot. The character of Jasmine, the daughter of Tarik and Bernadette, comes from nowhere: we see her first aged sixteen or so, and apparently sick of her mother's bitterness; then, after Bernadette's death, Jasmine seems to repeat the pattern of selling her soul to Jack Johns and provides an even more dramatic news item, her murder of her father by a poisoned fruit. This ending would be fine in a nineteenth-century opera, but it is abrupt and unsympathetic in the putatively realistic world of this one.

In general, the performances and the production overcame a lot of potential problems. Natasha Jouhl as Bernadette (the role is double cast) was beautifully honest and affectionate in the early acts, and disturbingly deranged in her final mad scene, which is full of pitfalls in the form of cups of tea. Barry Martin as Tarik was suitably opaque but attractive, never really a possible villain. The two of them were together a powerful focus for the opera.

Other roles were well filled. Alenka Ponjavic as Caitlin, Bernadette's bitter sister, and Lise Christensen as Mary, her intransigent mother, were well characterized, as was Douglas Bowen as Patrick, Bernadette's Republican father. (His desert boots were far too new, but that will wear off.) Ponjavić has a powerful, dramatic mezzo that made Caitlin perhaps scarier than she was supposed to be. David Clegg doddered amusingly as the judge, in a kind of tennis court, and he and Claire Platt as the prosecutor had fun with their pseudo-Handelian music. The ensemble, particularly in the scene of Bernadette's funeral in the last act, where individual singers work out their concerns over a Dies irae, were extremely well-rehearsed and effective.

The production itself was also ingenious and economical. The set was a black box, with a curved counter that was reconfigured to create various spaces, and the chorus, representing the world at large, wore suits and raincoats. This wasn't quite right for the xenophobes in the bar in act one: they were all holding copies of the impeccably internationalist FT, when their sentiments were those of the Daily Mail. Their movements were in economical music-theatre style, and often amusing, for example, when they crush and push at the airport check as Bernadette is set up with the bomb and it is detected. Close up scenes, such as Bernadette waiting for her pregnancy test in her bedsit, were neatly set off from public scenes.

This world premiere is a co-production by Guildhall, where Andrew Schultz now teaches, and the Queensland Conservatorium, where he used to teach. The production will travel to Brisbane, with some of the Guildhall cast and crew.

H.E. Elsom



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