Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
King Lear – Roderick Earle
Gloucester – Nigel Robson
Edmund – Nicholas Garrett
Edgar – Adrian Dwyer
Goneril – Jacqueline Varsey
Regan – Julia Sporsén
Cordelia/Fool – Lina Markeby
Knight/Servant - Jeffrey Stewart
Servant/Captain - Adam Tunnicliffe
James Conway (director)
Adam Wiltshire (designs)
Guy Hoare (lighting)
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)
This latest opera from Alexander Goehr – probably last, he says, but then so did Henze about his L’Upupa – promises in subject matter as well as name the makings of a testament, but there are signs aplenty of new life too. Promised End draws its name from Kent’s ‘Is this the promised end?’ when Lear re-enters, the dead Cordelia in his arms. The late Frank Kermode assembled the text exclusively from Shakespeare. This, apparently, was insisted upon by composer and librettist, and who can blame them after the miserable doggerel to which Meredith Oakes reduced The Tempest for Thomas Adès? There are twenty-four sections, ‘preludes’, but the action, bar an interval, is continuous.
Beckett looms large, though not overwhelmingly so, and how could he not in a Lear for our times? Ours is an age often preoccupied with reception history; it is not an age for naïve art. Some cultured despisers sneer at that, but what is the alternative: ignorance? We have far too much of that already, aided and abetters by those whose interests it serves. If Beckett is a strong presence, so is Brecht, not least in the creation of a chorus, which comments, punctuates, structures. The tension between existential devastation and alienation is productive, enhancing and questioning both.
Constructivist tendencies are also manifested in the pairing of Goneril and Regan, who seemingly cannot work without each other, and yet ultimately gain nothing, or at least nothing of value, from having done so. The pairing put me in mind – though this may just have been coincidence – of Morgan Le Fay and Lady de Hautdesert from Birtwistle’s Gawain, though without the sense of framing: Shakespeare’s unruliness is too great for that. Cordelia and the Fool are brought together in a further tightening of the casting-parallel noose. At the heart of both libretto and music lies the parallelism between Lear and Gloucester. Too old men, rendered foolish – and not in the Fool’s way – by power, have much to undergo before they can come together in the scene of transformation: a recognition scene not so much in the Elektra sense but recognition of themselves, of something concerning the true bleakness, as opposed to self-pity, of the human condition. Whatever happens in Elektra, it is certainly not that. There is no sub-Wagnerian redemption in this recognition; it is all too late. That, however, does not render it any less necessary.
Goehr’s score is of course the crucial thing. Endlessly inventive, we hear a dark generative activity that seems genuinely inspired by the short ‘prelude’ structure: shades even of Wozzeck, perhaps, in the tension between smaller forms and the greater whole. Sonority from his chamber orchestra – the fine Aurora Orchestra playing under Ryan Wigglesworth’s taut yet expressive direction – offers intimations of twentieth-century Neue Sachlichkeit: Hindemith at his more interesting and Weill sprang to mind, as well as Schoenberg. They remain intimations, however, certainly not imitations. Stravinsky’s graveyard harpsichord (The Rake’s Progress) makes its presence felt, both as soloist and quasi-continuo player, the organ proving a complementary and opposing force, perhaps a reference to Goehr’s beloved Monteverdi and The Death of Moses? There is little purely orchestral music; the pace is fast, though not, I think, cinematic, notwithstanding Goehr’s admiration for Eisenstein. However, we hear something akin to a battle symphony – the ghost of Handel? – when Edgar goes away to war. A notable feature of Goehr’s ensemble is its brace of tubas, sparingly used, yet a lugubrious and still melodious evocation of the wheel turning full circle.
The Fool’s songs, accompanied by guitar, evoke – at least for this listener – Monteverdi at his most Shakespearian; the parasite Iro (Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria) meets Beckett. That strange existential world is assaulted by Brecht and Weill, but is never vanquished; indeed, it emerges all the stronger. Vocally, there is typical precision and concision: never expansive, but somehow seeming dramatically ‘right’ in its urgency. Foucault, whom Goehr cites as an influence in this respect, would have pointed to the constructed nature of madness: here it is compositionally apparent.
James Conway’s production, aided by Adam Wiltshire’s designs, contributes greatly to the Beckettian mood and its Brechtian challenge. Japanese Noh theatre – recalling both Goehr’s Kantan and Damask Drum and his dream of Lear in Japanese, which provided the opera’s initial inspiration – is a presence too, though a contributory reference rather than an agent of excessive stylisation. The production seems to take its cue from the work, rather than to force itself upon the latter. As the action unfolds, the chorus is not static but re-assembles, so that observation remains to feed subsequent commentary.
Performances were all of a high standard: a true and worthy feather in the cap of English Touring Opera. Roderick Earle’s Lear commanded the stage and moved without inappropriate emoting. Nigel Robson’s Gloucester ran in parallel but remained differentiated: this was not a king, or an ex-king, but a senior courtier. Adrian Dwyer portrayed with touching acuity the transformation of Edgar into Poor Tom, whilst Nicholas Garrett’s leather-clad Edmund proved as devilish as his recent Don Giovanni for Opera Holland Park – and more cunningly fiendish. Jacqueline Varsey and Julia Sporsén offered what seemed the just admixture of repellent, individual ambition and structural complementary duet as the unlovely sisters, a true contrast with Lina Markeby’s haunting Cordelia and Fool.
Three cheers, then, for English Touring Opera. Let us hope that other companies, both in England and further afield, are listening, for Goehr’s earlier dramatic works demand revival, and sooner rather than later. And surely another company could offer him a commission he would find too intriguing to refuse?