Lies and deceptions
Almeida at Kings Cross
07/04/01 and 7 July
Martin Butler: A better place
Mark Le Brocq (Siward), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Suzanne), Gail Pearson (Karen), Roderick Williams (Michel)
Paul Daniel (conductor), Lenka Udovicki (director)
07/06/01 and 10, 14 July 2001
John Casken: God's liar
Omar Ebrahim (Father Sergius), Jeffrey Lentz (Stephen), Anne Bolstad (The woman), Louise Innes (mezzo), Louise Mott (mezzo), Henry Moss (tenor), Daniel Norman (tenor), Alastair Hamilton (baritone), Michael Burke (baritone)
Ronald Zolman (conductor), Keith Warner (director)
Two more new operas, both touching on redemption as opera should. The ENO's A better place, by Martin Butler, with a libretto by Cindy Oswin, is a chamber work on contemporary themes in a contemporary setting, performed in the epic space of the Coliseum. The Almeida's God's liar, by John Casken, with a libretto by the composer and Emma Warner, is based on a short story by Tolstoy that deals with big questions in a historical setting, at times seemed too introverted for the converted bus station at King's Cross which is the Almeida's temporary home. Casken's work seems to have much more depth, supported by a beautiful production and festival conditions, while Butler's seems exposed and fragile, creating a space for meaning rather than meaning itself.
A better place is essentially a bonus extra in the ENO's current season. Developed by the composer, the librettist and a group of performers in the ENO Studio, it has been slipped in after the last two performances of The rape of Lucretia at the end of the season. It deals with an affluent woman, in shock and denial after her husband's horrifying death, who moves to a warehouse conversion south of the Thames, takes in two damaged refugee siblings and confronts a vengeful Dickensian ghost. The ghost drives her to try to kill herself, but the siblings stop her and she finally admits that her husband is dead and that she has to live.
The whole work lasts under an hour, and the exposition is tight to the point of opacity: nothing is repeated or emphasized. There are a couple of extended set-pieces, a bravura aria for the tenor ghost on the river and a tango as the male refugee tries to engage the woman sexually, but generally there is just recitative and arioso, and the word setting is often uncomfortable, above and beyond the need to convey the characters' dislocation. But the set is economically evocative: packing cases (everyone is in transit) roll over the pit and into the stalls like the river, while an arc of lights at the back of the stage recalls the London Eye and perhaps suggests an upward trajectory in opposition to the death-laden river, where the ghost and his wife drowned.
The singers were different from those who took part in the workshop, but they were all fully engaged. Rebecca de Pont Davies as Suzanne, the woman, exuded uptightness; Gail Pearson and Roderick Williams were an urban Hansel and Gretel as the refugees, horribly involved with each other and at loggerheads with the world; Mark Le Brocq was a sinister ghost, with a frighteningly beautiful voice. They were all vivid if opaque characters, and you wanted to know more about them as the action zipped by, not hanging around enough for real drama.
God's liar, in contrast, involves a narrative over many years in the nineteenth century, interspersed and finally merged with a contemporary frame. At just over two hours, it is economical in its action, but engagingly paced. The reflections between successive scenes in the main narrative and the frame are particular helpful in keeping it moving along. The first act ends with the key scene in which Father Sergius, a Russian aristocrat turned hermit because of the "treachery" of his fiancée (she is the Tsar's mistress), cuts off his own finger (sic) to avoid being seduced by a passing noble widow, who then becomes a saint herself. The second act starts with the soft porn movie version of the same scene, scripted by Stephen, an idealistic academic who has himself succumbed to temptation. The widow's underwear is from Agent Provocateur. In a later scene, the people acclaim Sergius' healing powers, and their song of praise is transformed into a modern happy-clappy hymn. The music carefully distinguishes between the nineteenth century Russian setting, the movie and the contemporary narrative, until the end, when Sergius becomes a down-and-out in Stephen's world, Stephen finds a way to act on his idealism and the musical styles converge. (The elegant black-and-white set, divided diagonally with Russian text on the floor on one side and English on the other, ingeniously reflected and supported the mirroring.)
The three main characters and the six chorus members were all superb. Omar Ebrahim was outstanding as the tormented Sergius, singing beautifully while being the character completely. Anne Bolstad worked incredibly hard in the single female role, representing everything from Lolita to slapper (various) to saint. She has incredible presence and a seemingly indestructible voice, and her forcefulness almost made you forget how anti-woman the story is.
Ronald Zolman and the Almeida Ensemble were also excellent, getting the many details of the music out into the wide space of the theatre.