Magazine article The Spectator

Inspired Coupling

Magazine article The Spectator

Inspired Coupling

Article excerpt

Twice Through the Heart; From the House of the Dead (English National Opera) Cosi fan tutte (Opera North)

Mark-Anthony Turnage's Twice Through the Heart is a matter for relieved gratitude: a contemporary opera lasting just over half an hour, in an idiom that is uncompromising but accessible, and performed by Susan Bickley and 16 orchestral players under Nicholas Kok with conviction and intensity.

Bickley manages the awkward vocal writing with such aplomb that one takes it to be wholly the expression of the distraught unwilling murderess, who relives her sufferings and their outcome until she is awarded a surprisingly gentle ending, almost lulling in its effect. The brief silence which followed did seem to be eloquent of the audience's response, a recognition that this piece adds something to the repertoire, and is not merely the ENO being conscientious in promoting new work. There are limitations in Jackie Kay's poems about having to kill a brutal husband, but what comes across is more the general drift than the details, and one concentrates wholly on the subject, registering the orchestral details only as bringing it into clearer focus.

It was not only moving in itself, but an inspired choice as a coupling for Janacek's From the House of the Dead, which can certainly stand alone, but isn't so exhausting that it has to. The production strikes me as somewhat less effective than the very familiar and ever-admirable WNO one, which wears its 14 years lightly, and is one of the most striking and in all respects illuminating productions of any opera I have seen. This new one, directed by Tim Albery and designed by Stewart Laing, is serviceable, not impeding the strange and perversely celebratory work, but not making any new points either.

It is updated in a routine way, taking place, perhaps, in one of Stalin's more humane camps, though that makes many of the words seem very odd, and the Act II pantomime, which is the best stretch of the production, more bizarre than it always is. The strength of the work is demonstrated by the powerful effect which each episode has, once - at least on the first night past the poorly executed Overture, the strings covering themselves with shame. Throughout, Paul Daniel, in another triumphant and highly individual realisation of a great score, stressed the work's links with the Sinfonietta, virtually turning it into a series of fanfares, which increase in jubilant strength as the incidents they illustrate or accompany become more gruesome. …

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