I had no intention of seeing it after being burned last year by Nico Muhly’s Two Boys and especially after reading the wall to wall bad reviews. But getting an Orchestra Stalls ticket for £15 was an opportunity I couldn’t pass by.
The overwhelming feeling is of a work that did not come together, an inherent disparity between, word, music, movement, direction and stage design. As if Judith Weir was trying to tick too many boxes and failed to make them work as a whole.The camp utterances of a counter-tenor portraying Fate (dressed in the equivalent of a house coat covered in a thunderbolt print) varied from the annoying to the surplus to requirement. If she was really attempting humour or satire it clearly did not come through.
The staging was a faceless mush of an aerofoil trapezoid shape that was moving to different positions for scene changes (being projected on to add texture), another (red slatted this time) hinged trapezoid containing LED lighting within. The most extravagant prop, the exploding kebab van for Hassan was a pure folly that got used for around 10 minutes of stage time, only to be fire-bombed in the end…it’s typical of the flat nature of the work that I was more fascinated, by how the van was lowered down from the fly tower and the cables disengaged from it after landing, than Hassan’s singing about his love for the van and leaving Miss Fortune behind while he went supply shopping. This was supposed to be set in the 21st century and when I explained the plot to a colleague, she exclaimed how old-fashioned was the choice of Miss Fortune being surrounded by machinists in a textile factory. How about a more contemporary occupation in the service section, a fast food restaurant or something a bit more recognisable for the audience? Those kind of simplistic misfires are indicative of the unfortunate (what a pun, hey?) dramatically inert staging that added very little contemporary flavour than a regie director could muster with *cough* Rusalka. Maybe Weir and Shi-Zheng should have hooked up with Mary Portas’ Kinky Knickers and add a bit more pizzaz!
An inexplicable choice was why did Miss Fortune herself sing all the way from a forte to a near fortissimo throughout the piece. Emma Bell was just made to scream her way through the part with very little chance for articulation and allowance for feeling to penetrate the strident melodic line. The dance troupe (Soul Mavericks) were entertaining through out…but at the same time nothing like a touch of racial stereotyping by appointing black dancers as the source of menace to the urban environment that Miss Fortune was thrown into. Their performance was dedicated but somehow can’t see where in the grand scheme of things they were supposed to belong. The feeling that this was a very late addition came to mind at their every appearance.
This opera unfortunately was a total, if inoffensive, snooze to watch all the way through. If it wasn’t for the beautifully crisp playing by the orchestra (which actually sounded like a different orchestra since the recent dull performance of Don Giovanni). A huge thank you to all the orchestral players and the beaming Jacques Imbrailo who lit up the auditorium with his beautiful bright voice, much more than the preceding exploding kebab van.
I really can not understand how this lukewarm, pretty flat piece made it to the main stage of the Royal Opera House, it would have benefited by a new staging, some work on the libretto and the more intimate surroundings of the Linbury Studio (or the unthinkable…an industrial space in East London) with its smaller scale it would have been a better receptacle for Weir’s fluent and frequently beautiful score. Good luck to St Louis and their new staging of the work in 2013.
Below is a video of some of the stage action by the video designers, it will give you a taste for the look and movement of the staging and one of Kasper Holten introducing it to the unsuspecting punters.