Opera Shots: The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Doctor’s Tale, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, April 2011

The Tell-Tale Heart is an Edgar Allan Poe story in which the narrator kills an old man whose pale blue “vulture eye” bothers him inordinately. He worries about his own sanity, yet insists he must be quite sane since he carried out the murder with such care and precision, dismembering the body and hiding the pieces under the floorboards. The neighbours heard a scream in the night and called the police, but he gladly welcomes them and they find nothing amiss. Yet the beating of his own heart makes him believe the old man’s heart under the floor is still alive. This confirms his insanity, and he pulls up the floorboards, confessing to the crime.

Richard Suart as Edgar

Stewart Copeland’s wonderful adaptation of this story to the opera stage starts with the narrator — here called Edgar — in a straightjacket  that he then takes off to tell the story. Edgar was sung with excellent diction by Richard Suart, showing a calm sanity while hiding an interior insanity. This craziness was cleverly emphasised by having a shadow Edgar, sung by Richard Scrivens whose voice I heard echoing the real Edgar before seeing him appear darkly on stage while the real one was there in full view. Sneaking into the room to commit the murder is an important feature of the story and we see several slow silent attempts at night while the victim’s “vulture eye” is closed. The perpetrator’s mad idea is to close that eye forever, but he needs to see it open before committing the act, which he performs on a night when a ray of light wakens the eye.

In this production, directed by Jonathan Moore, the eye, both open and closed, is shown as a projection on the rear wall of the room, which functions as a stage within the stage. When the two policemen in their nineteenth century costumes enter the room with two neighbours, they search in a choreographically stylised manner, finding nothing, yet the music reveals the increasing sound of the tell-tale heart, until Edgar can stand it no more, and after his confession the police put him back in the straightjacket.

In 1977, Stewart Copeland was a founding member of The Police, a rock band in which he performed as drummer and percussionist, as well as doing vocals. His music in this opera rises from the bass, and its rhythmic intensity gives the story huge forward drive. It’s terrific — the music, the conception, the staging, everything works together to give a riveting and intense experience. Robert Ziegler’s conducting gave the necessary tension to the music, and this short opera was worth the whole price of the ticket.

The second item of the evening was a huge contrast. Terry Jones has created a Monty-Python-esque story called The Doctor’s Tale. Its earlier title was The Doctor is a Dog, a very accurate description of the story. A human looking dog, well sung and performed here by Darren Abrahams, is seeing patients, particularly those who “need a little love and attention”. We see a picture of his mother, and hear lines such as “They said they wouldn’t let her loose/ to wander round the town/ They said that she had cooked her goose,/ and then they put her down”. Towards the end the doctor meets his mother in doggy heaven where all these human dogs are endowed with angel wings. This is after he’s been put down himself, having been imprisoned with other dogs, one of was once a headmaster, who was found out to be a dog because he “slobbered and drooled”. Those who feel that a dog is a man’s best friend will love it, and I loved the start with the fun choreography where the dog and his patients do a one leg, other leg routine just as if they were in a Monty Python sketch.

Terry Jones created the production using 1950s costumes along with floppy ears, tails and black noses for the dogs. The music by Anne Dudley, conducted by Tim Murray, had Kurt Weill qualities at some points but was far lighter than Stewart Copeland’s music for The Tell-Tale Heart. The audience obviously enjoyed the whole experience, which ended in doggy heaven with an outbreak of love.

Performances of this double bill continue to April 16 — for more details click here.

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