Promised End, English Touring Opera, Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, October 2010

In Shakespeare’s King Lear the fool and Cordelia are never on stage at the same time, and in this operatic version of Lear they are the same character, beautifully sung by Lina Markeby. One might expect an operatic treatment of King Lear to be of Wagnerian proportions, yet Alexander Goehr’s version lasts only one and three-quarter hours, including an interval. Some characters have to be cut, but the nasty sisters are still there, and one of them does the wicked deed of putting out Gloucester’s eyes herself. It’s an intense opera, and the meeting of the blind Gloucester and half-mad Lear is a late focal point.

The simple staging worked well under the direction of James Conway, with designs by Adam Wiltshire, in which the faces of the performers are given an eerie make-up with dark eyes. Throughout the opera all the characters stay on stage, while those not involved in the action stand behind a darkly translucent screen, ready to sing as a chorus when required. The singing was all good, with Roderick Earle notable as Lear, Nigel Robson as Gloucester, and Nicholas Garrett as a sonorously vicious Edmund, well-befitting a man who sang Don Giovanni at Holland Park this past summer.

Unfortunately the diction was poor, probably because the singers had difficulty adjusting to the score, and without surtitles it was not possible to know what was being sung half the time. This is a serious flaw because the words are extracts from Shakespeare, selected by the composer and Frank Kermode, and they’re important. Even with the Aurora Orchestra — well conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth — behind a screen at the rear of the stage, the singers still had to project very strongly to deal with the music, and this may not have helped their diction.

The music itself was intense, as it has to be when distilling the work of a great playwright into a short opera — think of Strauss’s Elektra as distilled from Sophocles by Hugo von Hofmannstahl — but I felt no emotional grip as I do with Elektra’s yearning for Agamemnon in the Strauss opera. I think it’s not an easy play to turn into opera, though several people have tried, most notably a 1978 version by Aribert Reimann, which was produced by the ENO in 1989, but that is a longer work with more scenes. On the whole this seems a bit dull, but may come over better on a second hearing.

Two more performances at Covent Garden are scheduled for October 14 and 16, after which it will tour to the following venues: Malvern Theatres, Oct 21; De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, Oct 26; Exeter Northcott, Oct 29; The Hawth, Crawley, Nov 1; Cambridge Arts Theatre, Nov 3, 6; Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Nov 26.

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