Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has been the source of many dramaturgical treatments through the years, from radio to tv to film. Hearing that it has been adapted into a chamber opera may have scared a lot of people but in the hands of Tarik O’Regan and Tom Phillips it was an intriguing endeavour.
For me the stand out feature of this collaboration is the long gestation period, it all started with an email from Phillips to O’Regan to suggest he takes on a serious subject and write his first opera in 2002. This was not an overnight slapdash operation, both collaborators clearly did their homework at great length. Phillips went over every word by Conrad in order to put together the libretto and he had the prudence to only use words from the book. A deliberate and very clever choice that stuck to his Victorian language without much modernisation. O’Regan listened to 1950s ethnographic recordings of Congolese music (frequently recorded with percussion and acoustic guitar) by Hugh Tracey and worked them into the texture of the piece. Clearly having someone with so much experience in the field was very useful, as O’Regan put it on a Tweet: ‘(having Tom Phillips on board) was like a lighthouse when the artistic fog crept in (no dry ice)!’*
To describe the soundworld of the work, one would have to point to a dual character, one more abstracted atmospheric music for the less narrative parts and a more synthetic, recitative heavy part with the work through structures and resonances of the recorded music from Belgian Congo.
This duality of soundworlds reflects both the dual perspective of the narration (young man at the River Congo vs old man at the River Thames) and also the much troubled and contested dual nature of Conrad’s novella. It has been claimed to be a narrative that took away the voice of the native African population and on the other hand it has been claimed to be an anti imperialist manifesto of sorts. The fact that this chamber opera reflects this confusing and still in flux reputation of the original and its author is a very clever move and one that makes the whole experience maybe a less satisfying theatrical experience but it creates the underpinnings of a true psychodrama. My first reaction after the end was how strong the emotional core of the work was. It is in turns moving and disturbing but it navigates the territory with dignity and with respect for the source material and for its troubled history. As O’Regan said at the preceding talk, he was well aware of the lack of action sequences from the book and that made it more of a challenge. Another intriguing and actually common sense approach to the endeavour was the 75 min length, which was likened to how long it would take Marlow to narrate the story. A simple idea but an indication of lack of a huge ego that dictates everything (very much a tactic that could have saved Nico Muhly’s Two Boys from it’s ponderous and saggy 2 hour+ slog).
The libretto and the composition gave emphasis to two key words that express the character of the book, remarkable man which is used to describe Kurtz and is reflecting the ambivalence of him as dual hero/anti-hero personality that runs through the story. Also the emphasis on the arrival of the rivets to fix the steamer and navigate the river with is adding a more comedic feel, a much needed relief from the darker mood up to that point.
The orchestra (CHROMA) played beautifully throughout the piece ably conducted by Oliver Gooch. Apart from the excellent performance by Alan Oke, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers was a creepy River Woman and a demure Fiancee with a wonderful smoky delivery. Morten Lassenius Kramp was a believable, delirious Kurtz with looks out of Baywatch 😉
The set was a wood plank platform hovering over a reflective pool of water and suspended ropes creating a suitable flexible environment that was morphing from Thames to Congo River with the use of lighting and some smoke. A suitably sleek but not overwrought environment to show off the material but not to overwhelm it. Both Opera East Production and ROH2 should be very proud of how it turned out. And hope they can fulfil their ambition to tour the work next year.
Heart of Darkness managed what a lot of contemporary opera does not care about, emotion. The woven textures of the score and the beautiful singing by the dedicated cast was a joy to listen to, but more importantly an emotional experience, like the best of opera it touched the audience.
Tweets from the night: