Sunday, 2 September 2012

Huw Watkins In the Locked Room Edinburgh Festival

Huw Watkins's opera In the Locked Room is coming to the Linbury at the Royal Opera House soon. It's just premiered at the Edinburgh Festival. Juliet Williams reports

'In the Locked Room' sets an eternal story of a love triangle on the Sussex coast. It's based partly on a short story by Thomas Hardy and infused with the poetry of David Harsent, who writes the libretto. But the sum here is far, far greater than the total of the parts. This relatively predictable-seeming situation is wound into a gripping psychological drama, further enhanced by its music and staging. The psychological claustrophobia is mimicked by the use of a doll's house to represent the Sussex house where they all live.

Huw Watkins's music subtly enhances the story to further intensify its already powerful narrative. Scottish Opera's mini-series of mini-operas are all well worth seeing, but this is the jewel in the crown. Overstretched City financier Stephen negotiates the use of a seaside home with his wife Ella, who stays at home tending the garden and reading. Stephen becomes more and more wrapped up in his work, and his neglected wife turns for solace to poetry she has found, whch turns out to be written by a mysterious occupant of a room, which is always locked, in the buidling where they live. Ella withdraws further and further into her fantasies about the absent poet, eventually meeting him with predictably tragic consequences for all of them. There's a Shakespearian-style sub-plot where the greater similarity Stephen has with their business-like landlady than with the dreamy Ella is subtly pointed up from time to time.

Paul Curievici (raved in Chelsea Opera Group's La forza del destino here)  as Stephen has the least sympathetic character but a very enjoyable voice. In a generous double bill, this delightful and intense vignette is followed by a slower-moving enactment of the horrors of war. It's an updating of some of the messages of the War Poets of a century ago, and the use of Plato's words, “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” reminds us that this theme too is a perennial one for humanity.

Stuart McRae – a pupil of James MacMillan (whose opera Clemency was reviewed here) - is known for his writing for the cinema, and the music and staging here have strong cinematic elements. 'Ghost Patrol', like 'In the Locked Room' is also in many ways a love triangle situation, but not so much one between a woman and two men (although this is one plot element, it is overall a relatively minor one) but a man torn between his love for a woman on the one hand and the camaraderie and structure of military life on the other. Both Alasdair and Sam are former soldiers having difficulty adjusting to civilian life. Alasdair is apparently more successful than Sam, running a bar, where the action is set, in an unspecified garrison town. The more unfortunate soldier breaks in by night, and the opera opens on a very exciting scene where a man clad only in underpants wrestles with a masked intruder. After a brief struggle, they soon recognise each other though as comrades from army days.

The arrival of the bartender's girlfriend, Vicki, onto the scene quickly reveals though that he too is frequently awakened by nightmares, he too is affected by what might now be termed 'combat stress' or 'post traumatic stress disorder'. Both are torn between missing army life and being haunted by the horrors of war. Vicki, the girlfriend, is a strong and bitter woman, militantly (pun intended) opposed to war. Yet it is never explained why then she makes her life with an ex-soldier. She urges the men to embrace peace and make a new life, but she has only a rather limited life as a pub entertainer, which with further irony involves an act where she dresses up in military uniform as a forces sweetheart of the 1940s (again this device emphasises the timelessness of the opera's message). These unresolved issues, combined with her repetitive and at times unsubtle polemic, make this character less than entirely satisfactory. Jane Harrington, who has trained both as an actress and at the Royal College of Music, is very good in this role, notwithstanding its intrinsic limitation. As before, there is a generally high standard of performances from all the singers and musicians. There's another Edinburgh performance tomorrow (2nd September) on the final day of the Festival, but it's sold out and has been for some time. There's another chance to see this programme in Glasgow, and both operas will be in London later in the year.

Edinburgh International Festival, Traverse Theatre
'In the Locked Room'
Huw Watkins – music, David Harsent – libretto
Ruby Hughes – Ella, Hakan Vramsmo – Pascoe, Paul Curievici – Stephen,  Louise Winter – Susan
The Orchestra of Scottish Opera, Michael Rafferty - Conductor, Michael McCarthy - Director

'Ghost Patrol'
Stuart McRae - music, Louise Welsh – libretto
James McOran-Campbell – Alasdair, Nicholas Sharratt – Sam, Jane Harrington - Vicki, The Orchestra of Scottish Opera, Michael Rafferty - Conductor, Matthew Richardson - Director

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