Staged opera has been a bit of a challenge for the International Festival in recent years, so it was a pleasant surprise when this year's programme was announced to find that one of only two staged operas was to be a European premiere. I'd read a positive note of Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek's new work in the New Yorker. I'd also been a huge fan of Tom Morris's production of John Adams's masterpiece The Death of Klinghoffer for ENO. The signs were encouraging. This proved to be a gripping evening of music theatre, introducing me to a work which deserves to be widely seen.
The new opera is an adaptation of Lars van Trier's 1996 film of the same name. I haven't seen the film so I can't comment on how the adaptation compares. What particularly surprised me was the sudden realisation a few days before I attended that both have a Scottish setting. Given the Festival has been anxious to play up Scottish content in recent years it fascinates me that more emphasis was not placed in the marketing of this run on that Scottish setting. I wonder if the darker Scotland portrayed here may be a factor - a community whose narrow minded, intolerant religion has terrible consequences. I actually thought this story had more interesting things to say about Scotland than most of the recent newly commissioned Scottish plays the Festival has offered - not least because it is centrally concerned with a darker Scottish world than those plays have often wanted to address.
The story follows the romance of Bess McNeil (Sydney Mancasola) with Jan-from-the-rig (Duncan Rock). At first theirs is a joyous union, though we are made aware of the lowering presence of the church via the Councilman (Freddy Tong) and Bess's Mother (Susan Bullock), and the fragility of Bess's mind as she conducts private conversations with God. All too soon tragedy strikes, Jan is seriously injured in an accident on the rig with Bess believing her prayer to bring him back immediately is to blame. Subsequently, via the in some cases fatally well meaning interventions of friendlier parties, Bess agrees to Jan's injunction (possibly delivered while mentally disturbed) that she should sleep with other men.
Mazzoli's word setting has a glorious lyricism, particularly in the soaring lines delivered seemingly effortlessly by Mancasola. That surging urgent quality recalled John Adams to my mind, while elsewhere there are shades of Britten in the writing - particularly in that for Dr Richardson. But these echoes do not make this a lesser work, rather it as if those approaches are refashioned into something fresh. Partly this is a matter of distinctive touches like the rumbling, ominous electric guitar underpinning some of the church utterances, or the almost sprechgesang with which Bess and the chorus channel God's (imagined?) messages. But it's also to do with the way that Mazzoli and Vavrek conjure a more recent Borough. This particularly struck home to me in Act 3. Bullock's Mother condemns her daughter in sung phrases that recalled Mrs Sedley in Peter Grimes, but the scene morphs into a trio with sister-in-law Dodo (a fine performance by Wallis Giunta) and Mancasola which echoed but again freshened similar moments in Britten such as "From the gutter" in Grimes or even the haunted trio of the officers in the Billy Budd trial scene as each woman articulates her particular feelings. This was one of several occasions in the last act which brought tears to my eyes.
If I was going to be picky, I think the authors could possibly take another look at the conclusion (spoilers). There's a dramatically and musically shattering scene, cleverly set in the church, with the mortally wounded Bess cradled by Dodo and her repentant Mother. When Bess asks faintly whether perhaps she was wrong it's heartbreaking. Several powerful moments do follow - the funeral scene for "Sinner Bess" with biting commentary from Dodo, and Jan's final aria - but one feels a slight sagging of tension in the short gaps between them, and the concluding moments did fade out a bit ambiguously. Later it occurred to me that both Grimes and Budd have similarly subdued endings - but they build up an inexorability which Mazzoli and Vavrek don't quite find here. But this is very much a minor quibble in relation to a work that is overall compelling and of considerable power.
Tom Morris and Soutra Gilmour (designer)'s staging is a beautiful example of how effective the simple approach can be. There are a set of pillars in a forward pointed V rising from lowest to highest at the midpoint. Behind these we have a kind of scaffolding of pulpit like levels. The pillars are then set on a revolve. Subtle projections by Will Duke brilliantly enable this environment to double as church, cargo ship, oil rig, and the rather bleak walls of the McNeill home and the local hospital. Morris has that eye for the importance of the detail of movement that is too often neglected in opera. The love scenes largely convince - it's refreshing to have two singers who can not only sing their roles magnificently but look the part at quite close quarters. But the moments that most stick in my mind concern Dodo and Mother McNeill after the latter has practically thrown Beth out. The music follows Beth, but we still see Mother take up Beth's dress from the bed in a remorseful embrace.
The singing and acting across the ensemble is outstanding. In the pit Scottish Opera's music director Stuart Stratford draws equally fine playing from Scottish Opera Orchestra's soloists - the richness of the string sound that underpins much of the musical world of the piece was especially striking. Above all Stratford conjures that sense of forward dramatic momentum which I think is so crucial to really great opera. It's not quite clear from the programme whether the Chorus are a scratch ensemble or in fact regularly work with Scottish Opera but either way they throw themselves into the multiple roles of churchmen, riggers and the voice of God and make a crucial, powerful contribution to the overall success of the evening.
Although I've quibbled about what seemed to me the somewhat ambiguous ending, in almost every other way the ambiguities of the piece are a great strength. The programme comments on the fact that van Trier's film was accused of misogyny. By contrast, my partner asked me as I was describing the show to her afterwards whether this was a #MeToo opera. It seems to me that the opera leaves space for the audience to form its own conclusions. In an age of the play, especially, as political lecture, I found that ambiguity refreshing and powerful.
This rather magnificent opera deserves to be widely seen. It's a real feather in the cap of the Festival to have bagged the European premiere - London houses should be rushing to secure the first performances there. It was also interesting to be reminded that the King's has a nicer acoustic than the rather dry Festival Theatre - perhaps the Festival should think of putting opera in there more often.
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