Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Luke Bedford Through His Teeth Linbury ROH - best British opera in years

Can this be the best British opera in years? Luke Bedford's Through His Teeth at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre is exceptional. Drop everything and go. This packs more into less than an hour than many works which might last five times as long. It's so concentrated that further hearings will only intensify the respect that it's due. Bedford, now resident in Berlin, has found astonishing maturity and depth. Through His Teeth is sophisticated, and perhaps a bit above the heads of some, but that's exactly why Bedford is a true original.

Through His Teeth fires on every cylinder. A, (Anna Devin)  a dowdy 30-something looks at fancy cars in a showroom. R (Owen Gilhooly) spots her and chats her up. "I'm not really a car salesman", he says.  The tiny orchestra, CHROMA, conducted by Sian Edwards, screams alarm.  The small Trumpet in C wails like a warning klaxon. The harp's shortest strings are plucked to suggest tight, tense hollowness. An accordion gasps as if its lungs are too constricted to breathe. A doesn't take heed. R picked her out even before she entered the showroom,  sensing, perhaps, the vulnerability even she doesn't comprehend. What really draws a sensible girl like A into R's crazy world? It's not simply that he's good in bed. Almost from the start she knows something's wrong.  R's paranoid and thinks he's under surveillance. A assumes he's MI5. So it's  OK for her to accept flowers from him he's taken from someone he's just killed ? Morally, she too is compromised.

Distorted values, distorted reality. The designs (Becs Andrews) capture the psychological dislocation implicit in David Harrower's deceptively simple text.  Walls slide across the stage, dividing it into tightly framed compartments.  Sam Meech's videos fragment, offering mutiple different perspectives, even, perhaps that of the sinister surveillance person watching him. R controls A because she lets herself get cut off from the world around her. Yet. the walls of her "prison" are pierced weith holes which she could look through if she wanted to. This is the Faustian pact she's made with R. Like Mephistopheles he can offer her the wildest dreams imaginable but she must sell her soul.

The clarinet in B flat sings a poisoned melody, like a snake charmer's instrument. The cello is played so its strings reverberate their whole length, like a snake, flexing its muscles sensuously, like a and falling, willingly, into hypnosis. The percussionist beats brushes, quietly replicating a failing heartbeat. Bedford creates sounds that are so intriguing that the listener is drawn into an invisible trap, almost against one's will.  With abstract music, Bedford recreates extreme psychological complexity. Through His Teeth isn't just about sex. Manipulative people create cults around themselves.

A sinks so deeply into R's psychosis that her sister (Victoria Simmonds, playing multiple roles)  who lives in the real world, finds a way to trap him. R is put into prison. Gilhooly  walks as if he';s in chains we cannot see. Brilliantly economic direction by Bijan Sheibani. Watch this director - he's very good. Chains we cannot see: perhaps that sums up the horrifying nature of these mind games. A meets another of R's women (also Simmonds), a bag lady who blames herself for not being good enough to join the MI5 of R's imagination.  Modern Mephistopheles prey on their victim's hidden weaknesses, sucking them into a web of their own making.

At the end, the TV interviewer (Simmonds again) asks A, who is now technically "free", what she would do if if she were to meet R again. The question is put gently.. A's response seems non-committal, but Bedford's music suggests that A knows, deep in her heart, that she'd do it all over again.  The ending is powerful , all the more because it's so chillingly understated.  Bedford's Through His Teeth is a major work, which needs to be carefully contemplated.

photos : Stephen Cummiskey, Courtesy Royal Opera House

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