Heart of Darkness, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, November 2011

Wow! This was a remarkable achievement by 33 year old composer Tarik O’Regan, along with a libretto by artist Tom Phillips.

The crew on the boat

They have packed Joseph Conrad’s novella into 75 minutes of gripping musical narrative, starting in London with the old sea captain, Marlow — beautifully sung by Alan Oke — in a moment of recollection, “He was a remarkable man”. This is repeated in different forms, and although nothing is hurried, everything is accomplished. Marlow goes into the heart of Africa, upstream with his crew.

Edward Dick and Robert Innes Hopkins have come up with a wonderful design. The deck of the boat moves up and down on water that seeps through, and the effect is that we are there with them as they move up river. It is all helped by Rick Fisher’s lighting, which is mostly dark, but sometimes brilliantly lit with the crew is in the midday sun, and when the witch-doctor appears later we see a strangely magical projection roiling the air.

Alan Oke as Marlow

The sets and lighting help, but the atmosphere is created by the music and libretto. The tension, the frustrations, “What I really need are rivets”, and when the rivets eventually arrive the crew dance for joy. Bright interludes there may be, but the percussion, strings and woodwind create a sense of the jungle, and the crew pull out their guns, “The jungle has eyes in it”. They survive an attack, instigated by Kurtz, that mysterious man whom we eventually meet, strongly sung by young Danish bass Morten Lassenius Kramp. He looks the part in spades, lying on a table, yet supremely fit and slim when he stands up. A man of vision, or is it obsession — Kurtz and his ivory, “They will try to claim it as theirs. It’s my ivory. I want nothing more than justice”. But as Marlow later sings, “His intelligence was perfectly clear, but his soul was mad”.

Marlow and Kurtz

The opera ends as it starts, on the river Thames in London. Kurtz’s fiancée, sung by Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, reappears and we are back to Marlow’s conversation with her at the beginning. He muses about the ‘remarkable man’, impossible to know him and not admire him. She wants to know what were his last words, and Marlow is stuck. “The last word he announced was . . . your name”. It is almost the end, and as the tide of the music goes out and in, we are left to ponder on the eternal insanity of acquisitive obsession.

The music was played by CHROMA conducted by Oliver Gooch, and I would gladly hear and see it all again. This is the first time I remember seeing surtitles in the Linbury Studio, and they worked very well. Performances continue until November 5 — for details click here.

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