A well-told story
03/16/2004 - - 3 April 2004
Stephen McNeff: Clockwork
Ian Jervis (Ringelmann/Baron Stelgratz), Darren Fox (Karl/Prince Otto), Anna Boucher (Landlady/Princess Mariposa), Kevin West (Burgomaster/Groom), Bernadette Lord (Gretl/Lady-in-Waiting), Peter Willcock (Fritz), Martin Nelson (Dr Kalmenius)
Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra and Martin Music Scholarship Fund
Stephen McNeff (conductor), Tony Graham (director)
"Childrenís opera" are normally words to dread. Hansel und Gretel (really an ingenious confection for adults), and maybe Amahl and the Night Visitors (another work of seasonal sentiment), apart, the ambition of getting them at seven and having them for life is resoundingly misplaced: the overloading of a story with meaning by means of music is usually too much for beginners, and an unoverloaded opera isnít really an opera. Many a potential operagoer of today is probably watching television instead after exposure to Lucky Peterís Journey thirty years ago. The Unicorn Theatreís Clockwork, however, composed by Stephen McNeff with a libretto by David Wood, has plenty to interest adults and seemed at this performance to entertain, or at least intrigue, its target audience of eight-to-twelve year olds.
The immediate draw was presumably the source of the libretto, a short novel by Philip Pullman, from long before His dark materials. It has almost everything you could want in a fantasy opera: a pan-Germanic rural setting, a morally wobbly anti-hero called Karl (as in Der FreishŁtz), a Hoffmanesque reflection on the power and danger of art in the form of the genius engineer of clockwork people, Dr Kalmenius, and even a terrifying night ride with a child in danger straight out of Der Erl-KŲnig. There some comedy (a murderous clockwork knight who kills anybody who says "devil" unless they sing a complicated tune) and plenty of sado-masochistic detail on the edge of anxiety-fantasy and myth, for example, the father who has his heart ripped out to save his son and then replaced by a clockwork heart so that he can drive the son home again. But the main plot is a straightforward one of redemption by love: the clockwork prince is not saved by his fatherís gory sacrifice (his clockwork seizes up again in time), but he becomes fully human when Gretl, the landlordís daughter, loves him. Yet the prince is originally in a story told by Fritz, the local storyteller, and the events of the story are an allegory of the creative activity of the storyteller and his friend Karl, the apprentice clockmaker who hasnít made the clockwork figure required of him: both struggle to produce something, but Karl is lazy and selfish, and his (heartless) art has destructive consequences which lead to his death, while Fritz is generous and humane, and his art, although it causes pain, also gives life.
It is all a tad complicated and potentially confusing, held together by the interlocked but not particularly dramatic themes of the passage of time and the interconnectedness of everything by cause and effect, like clockwork. In particular, the storytellerís tale is first enacted as he tells it by the "real" characters who hear it, and then, after it has burst into their reality, completed in flashback by the same singers playing the characters their characters formerly impersonated. Most of the dramatic gestures are those of gothic horror and romance, but they serve rather more abstract themes than usual. Tony Grahamís ingenious direction and the skill of the cast pretty much brought it off, but even adults must have sneaked a look at the detailed synopsis in the programme in the interval.
The theme of clockwork also holds the music together handily, with an energetic rhythmic chorus that recurs in a nearly through-composed score made up of a Sondheim-like mix of short numbers, expressively set sung dialogue and occasional spoken dialogue. A work that announces its own cohesiveness with the slogan "a well told story is like a well wound clock" cannot risk any sloppiness, and on a first hearing it hung together excellently, and proved satisfying even at points when the detail of the plot was obscure. Perhaps Clockwork is targeted at children in a more subtle way than in the choice of its source: it is dream-like in a similar way to the Alice stories, where a surface verbal and narrative logic covers a dark fantasy.
The cast and orchestra, directed by the composer, were all excellent, as was the uncredited sign interpreter.