Alex (Amar Muchhala) and Lea (Sky Ingram)
Images: ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House
Alex – Amar Muchhala
Lea – Sky Ingram
Christina – Clare Presland
Michael – Ashley Riches
Thaddeus Strassberger (director)
Madeleine Boyd (designs)
Matt Haskins (lighting)
Geoffrey Paterson (conductor)
Offerings at the Linbury have looked up greatly since Kasper Holten ditched the previous regime’s ROH2 experiment and reintegrated the studio theatre’s programming. That has not precluded visiting ensembles, such as Music Theatre Wales and English Touring Opera, from giving their shows there – and giving them very well indeed, when one thinks of, for instance, Greek and King Priam. But there has been a distinct improvement in the profile of the Royal Opera’s own stagings, last season’s brilliant Francesconi Quartett a case in point, and a newly commissioned work is always – well, almost always – to be welcomed in principle.
What, then, of Glare, a new opera by Søren Nils Eichberg and his librettist, Hannah Dübgen? It certainly does not reach such heights; nor does it seem really to aspire to them. But an enterprise with a commitment to contemporary music, indeed a commitment to broadening the repertoire and the terms of its presentation, needs to offer space to fail. Glare does not do that; this is no Miss Fortune, to recall an unfortunate new work from the ‘main’ stage, let alone ENO’s nadir of Two Boys. What is offered in about an hour and a quarter might seem like a superior version – it would not be difficult! – of the latter work’s genre, coming across more like a sung version of a television drama than an opera as we generally understand it. And frankly, it is difficult imagining many wanting to grant it repeated listenings, or viewings, the plot-driven nature of the piece seemingly being more the thing than we tend to expect. Yet, on those terms, should we accept them, it passes the time and even has one think a little.
Michael (Ashley Riches) and Lea
Glare, then, is clearly driven, or so it seems, by Dübgen’s libretto. It is not always brilliantly written and, frankly, shouts of ‘fuck!’ are not in the slightest bit ‘edgy’ in themselves. Put another way, this is no angry Steven Berkoff shout, thinking again of Greek; but then, nor is it trying to be. However, despite the banalities, whether of language or indeed of a story in which a man, Alex, meets a ‘perfect’ woman, only to discover, or so he thinks, that his supposed friend, the scientist Michael, has designed her as an android, one is prompted to think, if a little too obviously, of what it might mean to be human, of how we exist in relationship to one another. There are finer libretti, of course, but for every Hofmannsthal or Da Ponte, there are many – well, fill in the gaps at your leisure.
Where, for me, the opera is weaker is in the score. Again, I am sure that part of the claim will be that it is not trying to be desperately original or searching. Its derivative rather than positive eclecticism, its drum-kit-heavy orchestration – this is an urban tale, is, I assume the point – and above all its unremarkable vocal writing and lack of musical characterisation conspire to ensure that the opera never really takes off as it might. Just when the android – or is she? – Lea seems to hint at an Olympian (Tales of Hoffmann) sound-world or at least vocal line, she is cut short and normal service resumes; I am not convinced that that is a deliberate musico-dramatic strategy. Eichberg’s writing is, to be sure, competently written on its own terms, but it trails rather than mirrors, questions, or transcends the ‘thriller’ story – which again makes one unlikely to wish to hear the work again. Perhaps that is the point: a ‘disposable’ opera for disposable times; perhaps I am too wedded to the idea of a ‘repertoire’ to be expanded. Perhaps, but I shall need more convincing than this.
Opera is also of course about performance. And here the Royal Opera scored very highly. Geoffrey Paterson and the ever-excellent musicians of CHROMA seemed very much on top of the score: precise, colourful, rhythmically taut. One was left in little doubt that this was what we were supposed to be hearing. A cast of young, attractive – vocally and physically – singers invested their roles with much of the character that was lacking in the music. Amar Muchhala proved nicely equivocal as Alex: always a difficult thing, strongly to portray (relative) weakness. (Ask any Don Ottavio!) Sky Ingram engaged considerable sympathy as Lea, despite having tediously to observe that the noise-level was so many decibels and so on. (That is an indication of her robotic nature, in case you were wondering.) Ashley Riches convincingly moved from Mephistopheles to sadistic rapist as Michael, his rich bass voice dramatically as well as musically convincing. He also proved a dab hand at pool, not least whilst singing. Clare Presland as Christina, Alex’s former girlfriend, appeared, again vocally as much as visually, properly bewitched by Lea, hinting at a greater humanity on both their parts.
Thaddeus Strassberger’s staging provides an effective enough frame for the opera to play itself out. It is difficult, indeed impossible, in such situations to know how much is his doing and how much the librettist’s; wherever the responsibility lies, Alex’s falling down upon his bed is perhaps overdone, especially when he masturbates during his sleep. The realism of the æsthetic seemingly militates against a reading that he is imagining Lea and Christina becoming better acquainted with each other, though perhaps that is the point. Perhaps, though, the lack of ambition, the ordinariness of a science-fiction conceit, is again part of the point.