Saturday 16 October 2010

Alexander Goehr's Promised End, or in which your correspondent confesses to uncertainty

I set out for the Linbury Theatre this evening with low expectations.  The reviews for English Touring Opera's world premiere production of Alexander Goehr's Promised End had been uniformly dire, and my doubts were increased when close inspection of various interviews with the composer and the cast list on the ROH website revealed that he had excised two of the protagonists whose journeys most engage me (Kent and Albany) from the action.  At the interval I was on the whole indifferent to the piece, though not desperately bored as many critical colleagues clearly were.  By the end I was in a great state of uncertainty about it.

The first, most important, and clearest thing to be said about this work is that it isn't Shakespeare's King Lear.  That is it is absolutely fatal to go to this with some kind of expectation that it will be the play only sung.  But nor is this a hatchet job of the kind frequently perpertrated by modern directors on Shakespeare (and indeed many other dramatic masters).  It would perhaps be most accurate to regard this as Alexander Goehr's King Lear.  That is the piece focuses on those elements of the original which are of most interest to the composer.  This makes for a most odd experience if you know the play well as I do having studied it at A-Level.  It is quite impossible not to be aware of everything that has been omitted and to some degree I think I found my preferred focus in the play at war with Goehr's.  This is frustrating, and when combined with Goehr's unforgiving musical language can wear one down (I was somewhat so by the end of the first half) but boring is really not the right word.

The next thing you have to be prepared for is the stylistic approach.  I wish I knew more about Japanese theatre, and the programme is not especially helpful on this point but there is a stylisation to the acting – the most obvious aspect of which is the box of sand which each performer steps in (at least in the first act) before entering a scene.  At least initially this makes a lot of it feel rather artificial, but as with other aspects of the piece I did feel the effect gained more punch as the opera went on.

Goehr has been right I think to emphasise that all the words are Shakespeare's – again an aspect whose impact shifts over the course of the piece.  In the first half I found myself playing a kind of intellectual game – that is spotting where in the play the various chunks were being taken from, and constantly aware of what was being omitted.  In the second half it began to exert an odd kind of spell.  And this is the part I really can't quite explain.  Nothing hugely changed, but almost against my own will I was sucked into it.  I don't think this can be wholly explained by a glass of wine at the interval.  Rather there is something eerie and suggestive that emerges from this reimagining.  Apart from anything else it is hard to think of another libretto of such poetry.  The word setting may not always enhance that poetry (the mock trial setting the words of Lear, the Fool and Poor Tom really didn't work for me) but again it has a curiously building effect as the piece goes on.

The performances themselves are all first class, both dramatically and vocally – a rare thing indeed in the operatic world.  Diction throughout is admirable, making the most of the rich text being set.  I would particularly single out Adrian Dwyer as Edgar, and Lina Markeby as Cordelia/The Fool but this is an impressive company performance.  Likewise the orchestra and Ryan Wigglesworth's management of the whole piece is worthy of high praise.

What judgement then is one left with?  The definite view of critical colleagues would seem to be that this is a work which should sink without trace.  I do not concur.  Yes, this is a harsh and challenging musical landscape, but it is not ultimately a barren one. There is something provoking in this, enough to make me feel that this is a modern work deserving of another hearing, and certainly that it is being put on by an enterprising company who work tirelessly and are deserving of high praise.  This is a piece which leaves me still pondering, and anything that does that is worthy of sustained and thoughtful attention.

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