Michael Berkeley’s new opera, his first with librettist Ian McEwan, is a remarkably coruscating and passionate piece of musical theatre.
It’s a familiar enough tale of love unfulfilled, lust unconsummated, and self-delusion untrammelled.
The plot revolves around a womanising, egomaniac musician (nothing new there), his wife (neglected and frequently betrayed), their housekeeper (hopelessly besotted with her master), the wife’s doctor (in love with his patient) and the conductor’s latest squeeze (the unconsummated bit).
What puts it into a totally different world from Mozart and others, who explored similar themes, is the contemporary setting and music.
Staged by Music Theatre Wales with an expressive economy (designer Simon Banham’s wooden panels simply rise and fall to change the scenes) and directed with a fluent verismo by Michael McCarthy, the production moves along both easily and coherently.
Berkeley’s score, often bustlingly energetic and harmonically uncompromising, yields many delights. His ear for instrumental colour and texture is flawless: telling solos, glittering percussion-enhanced ensembles and pungent tuttis from the 14-piece orchestra are all stunningly executed under Michael Rafferty’s precise direction. The angular vocal style is just as challenging, often taking singers to extremes of tone and tessitura.
Saturday’s performance, the only one in Birmingham, revealed no weaknesses in a uniformly excellent cast of six.
In particular Nicholas Folwell’s composer conveyed the perfect mix of bluster and disrepute, while Gail Pearson made his wife seem both frail victim and, in her determination not be humiliated, a surprisingly strong woman.
However, Arlene Rolph’s housekeeper, a fully-rounded, though deeply-flawed character who gained all our sympathy, provided the show’s tour de force – completely believable, brilliantly delivered – and a mezzo voice of glorious warmth and timbre.