Image borrowed from www.eno.org

Image borrowed from http://www.eno.org

The first thing to say is that I was very entertained by this performance. The story was an excellent choice for an opera plot, being a mixture of comedy and misery centring on an obsessive and destructive love affair. The acting and characterisation were excellent, with Stephanie Friede as fashion designer Petra, who falls in love (as ridiculously instantaneously as any tenor) with vapid sex-object Karin (Rebecca Von Lipinski). The relationship, from the start not looking particularly likely to make either of them happy, soon sours, causing Petra to go into a spiral of self-pitying alcoholism, the effects of which she inflicts on daughter (Barbara Hannigan), mother (Kathryn Harries), best friend (Susan Bickley) and most of all her masochistic personal assistant Marlene (Linda Kitchen).

On entering the auditorium, the first things that sprung to my mind were ‘It must be the in thing at the moment to have characters already on stage while the audience are coming in’, ‘I wonder if that’s the same bathtub they tried to drown Freia in during Rheingold’, and ‘Wow – that woman among the dummies [who turned out to be Linda Kitchen] is standing really still. I wonder if they recruited her from those street-performer people who stand on boxes in Covent Garden pretending to be statues.’ However, the set design looked great – all geometric 70’s style home furnishing in brown and beige, with pink accessories, a lurid yellow kitchen to the left and an equally lurid orange bathroom to the right.

Not a huge amount happens in the first half (Acts 1/2); although the dialogue cracks on a great pace, it is mostly banal chit-chat. The exception to this is Karin’s traumatic story of the death of her parents, breaking in suddenly among the stilted blathering about school subjects, films, etc., followed by Petra’s realisation of her lesbian feelings and declaration of love. It is in the second half (Acts 3/4/5) that the story and characters really come into their own, with the shift of power in the duo from Petra to Karin, the filling-out of Petra’s character with the introduction of her daughter and mother, and the increasing frustration and distress of silent Marlene.

Up to this point I’ve avoided mentioning the music. Although the cast made an excellent job of singing what must have been demanding roles, and the orchestra played with great skill and precision, I have to say that in my personal opinion it was bloody awful. Risking the scorn of fans of Barry’s music, the stop-start style of broken bursts of sound did nothing for me, the over-dramatic aggression of almost every orchestral entry – regardless of the subject matter being sung about at any particular moment – detracting from the instances of genuine drama and emotion on stage, and the sections consisting mostly of orchestral scale-exercises monotonous. Incidentally, this review is written by someone who has studied and enjoyed listening to a fair amount of both atonal and minimalist music. As a comparison, I saw Berg’s Lulu when it was on a few months ago – a strictly serialist composition. Although at the start I admit I wasn’t particularly enjoying it, as the opera progressed, it grew on me. I would think this is probably because although initially the music appears chaotic, the brain soon begins to assimilate the patterns and structure, even if just unconsciously. The fault is quite likely mine, but what happened with Berg just didn’t happen with Barry, and the only patterns I picked up on were the dreary repeated motifs such as Petra’s LP of a scale going up and down and up and down and… There was a comedy moment, though, when Petra asked Karin if she liked this sort of music; Karin may have politely said ‘Um, yeah’ (or something like that), but the sniggers in the audience indicated they may well have felt the same but were being a little less polite about it.

To finish, a couple of things one doesn’t often hear sung in opera:
‘A big black man with a big black cock’
‘Algebra always gave me an incredible charge – incredible!’

And a couple of images one doesn’t often see in opera:
Soprano going to the toilet
Soprano dismembering metre-and-a-half high purple fluffy rabbit