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The second Mrs Rochester

Everyman Theatre
06/30/2000 -  and 2* July 2000
Michael Berkeley Jane Eyre
Natasha Marsh (Jane), Andrew Slater (Mr Rochester), Emily Bauer-Jones (Mrs Rochester), Beverly Mills (Mrs Fairfax), Tabitha Watling (Adele)
Michael Rafferty (conductor), Michael McCarthy (director)
Music Theatre Wales

The idea of Michael Berkeley's and David Malouf's "new chamber opera" Jane Eyre could in itself raise several questions. A cynic might wonder whether Berkeley is aiming for the "great books" constituency, like a significant proportion of American opera composers. A seventies feminist might ask whether Charlotte Brontë's transgressive narrative can survive the normative structures of an opera, where the madwoman is by convention the heroine destroyed. A common reader might be puzzled as to how Brontë's weighty novel could fit into a ninety-minute chamber opera. But Berkeley and Malouf jointly bring off an ingenious trick with mirrors which comes close to answering them. Jane Eyre is definitely a chamber opera, but the chamber is the reflective one of her mind.

The opera consists of Jane's memory of her experience at Thornfield, from Mrs Fairfax and Adele's welcome to her flight on the eve of her wedding when she encounters the first Mrs Rochester. The first part ends with Rochester's proposal and her acceptance, and the second with his cries intruding on her present and causing her to go to him again. Each part begins with Jane, then Mrs Fairfax and Adele, Rochester repeats his narrative in each part, and Mrs Rochester attacks in the same place. (It's not clear how the narrative symmetries are related to the fact that Berkeley had to write the first part of the opera again after the only draft was stolen.) The overarching symmetry, though, is that between Jane and Mrs Rochester, introspective soprano (who happens to be willows and pale) singing extended lyrical lines and distraught Carmen-ish mezzo singing scraps and snatches, circling around each other and eventually meeting face to face before Jane (perhaps) subsumes Mrs Rochester by marrying Mr Rochester. It's not quite Carmen with Michaela getting the guy, but only because Michaela manages to acquire just a touch of Carmen's danger.

Critics have noted the similarities with The turn of the screw, in the spooly glissandos of the music as well as the governess-in-strange-household plot. Berkeley's music is essentially an enjoyable melodrama, with a hysterical outburst in Adele's summary of Lucia di Lammermoor at the start and a couple of naive interludes that lack all the terror of Britten's "Malo". Adele and Lucia seem surplus to requirements, an attempt to evoke an operatic excess that isn't there in the material. The scene where Jane asks Adele about Mr Rochester seems, as a couple of critics have also noted, to invoke another comparison, with Pelléas et Mélisande, where a pallid stranger brings emotional turmoil to a grim household. But this doesn't quite come off either: the plot of Jane Eyre is referential and emotionally specific, as is the music.

Still, if Jane Eyre is not quite sure what sort of opera it is, it is quite a rewarding way to spend an afternoon or a short evening. There is certainly pleasure to be found in the distillation of a powerful romance into a succinct mental drama. Music Theatre Wales' excellent production, with a set made of semi-mirrors and Mrs Rochester in an attic above the central door, was ingenious and gently disturbing. Michael McCarthy's direction emphasise4d the suggestive parallels between Jane's desire and Mrs Rochester's delirium by matching them in various ways, within a conventional period drama acting style. The singers gave rounded dramatic performances, though Beverly Mills as Mrs Fairfax and Tabitha Watling as Adele really had little substantive to do.

Natasha Marsh as Jane, though, was sweetly passionate. Emily Bauer-Jones was intense and distubing as Mrs Rochester, and Andrew Slater was vocally suitably heavy but perhaps not quite aggressive as Mr Rochester. Michael Rafferty and the thirteen-piece orchestra generally provided an organic dramatic setting for the voices.

H.E. Elsom



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