The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

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The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant [Opera in five acts based on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s stage play; sung in the English translation by Denis Calandra]

Petra von Kant – Rayanne Dupuis
Valerie von Kant, her mother – Deirdre Cooling-Nolan
Gabriele von Kant, her daughter – Sylvia O’Brien
Sidonie von Grasenabb, her friend – Stephanie Marshall
Karen Thimm, her lover – Mary Plazas
Marlene, her personal secretary – [Not cast; mute rule]

RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra
Gerhard Markson

Recorded in a live performance on 27 May 2005 and in sessions on 29 May 2005 in the National Concert Hall, Dublin

Reviewed by: John Fallas

Reviewed: November 2005
CD No: RTÉ CD 261 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 47 minutes

If one counts purely by minute of performance time, roughly half of Gerald Barry’s output is devoted to works with text; three of these works are operas, and while it’s a pity not to have some of his other vocal music – “The Conquest of Ireland” or “The Eternal Recurrence”, both for soloist and orchestra, or “God Save the Queen”, for choir and ensemble – available on disc, fans and students of the composer who own the now-deleted Largo CD issue of his Channel 4 Television one-acter “The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit” will be pleased at the chance to buy not only its predecessor, “The Intelligence Park” (newly released by the ever-enterprising NMC), but also Barry’s newest work, “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant”.

Hot off the press to coincide with the opera’s stage premiere at English National Opera in September, this issue by RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcasting corporation and the co-commissioner (with ENO) of Petra, puts on record the opera’s concert premiere in Dublin back in May.

Little noticed then, the work gained a brief but impressive notoriety amid the extensive press hype which marked its transfer to London in a colourful, attention-seeking production by Richard Jones and the fashionably-monikered designer, Ultz. Now, with pink kangaroos but a distant memory, one turns to the CD shelf for a more measured impression, and finds (as did some of us sceptics in the ENO audience) that Barry, who for all his deliberate perversity and singularity of focus has rarely produced a failure as a work of art, has ridden this wave of publicity with what is, at best, an ambiguous testament to his creative powers.

Perhaps, like his lead character, he was blinded by love. Certainly, such an infatuation – with a play whose own theme is infatuation – would explain his apparent unwillingness to do what was needed to turn Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s volubly unpoetic text and (at least at first) tediously self-obsessed heroine into fit substance for an opera libretto. Taking Denis Calandra’s English translation of the play (Fassbinder filmed the original in 1972, although Barry says that having decided to use the script he steered clear of seeing the film), Barry sets every word, records every gesture, and in his faithfulness to the letter of the text fairly traduces both the generic context of Fassbinder’s conception and whatever potential it might have had for dramatic efficacy and concision.

It’s true that Barry has made his reputation riding roughshod and switchback through subtleties of text and characterisation. But that was in dealing with less realistic texts and less psychology-driven plots. In ‘Petra’, by contrast, the characters are not ciphers, or should not be.

As for controversy, the media was feeding on hot air. Each of Barry’s three operas has been concerned at some level with sexual deviance, but in a departure from the faint tang of self-loathing around male homosexuality which shadowed the two earlier works, ‘Petra’ – which swaps the all-male cast of “The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit” for a line-up of six women (one of them silent throughout) – relies on a different trope of gay male psychology, the obsessive interest in (identification with?) glamorous but troubled women.

Lesbianism, despite the headlines, is entirely incidental: this opera is about women as objects of admiration for gay men, whether Barry, Fassbinder, or the opera-queens in the audience. These male creators display their infatuation for Petra and her problems, and it is on its ability to draw interest from, whether or not it wishes to evoke sympathy for, the portrait of a character that Barry’s work stands or falls, just as surely as Petra’s infatuation with the beautiful young Karin leads her to near-destruction and final, ambivalent epiphany.

So evident is Barry’s obsession with his subject, in fact, that his passion for the opera is clearer than is Petra’s for Karin within the work. Fassbinder’s text is so discursive in its communication of action (on which little relies) and character (on which so much here needs to hang) that it is hard to concentrate on music and drama at the same time, and even harder to be aware of any productive disjunction between the two. In Act One especially, both the moderate tempo and the disproportionate reliance on wordy narration to provide back-story (Petra’s conversation with her friend Sidonie about her recently failed marriage) contribute to a sense of dramatic redundancy. One is bored rather than exhilarated.

In Act Two likewise, the intended impression of strain in Petra’s relationship with her young protégé and lover is diluted by Barry’s careless way with the text. The same techniques may have been productive elsewhere, but where so much of Fassbinder’s conception is evidently reliant on the differences in register (for which read education, self-awareness, ambition in life) between the speech of the two protagonists, more is lost than gained. The problem is not helped in this recording by Rayanne Dupuis’s American-diction as the ‘European’ Petra, and Mary Plazas’s ‘proper’ English as the rather-less-than-properly-spoken Karin.

Only after the departure of Karin, once Petra is left to her lonely agony and to recriminations with friends and family (some striking and humorous unaccompanied duets with coloratura soprano Sylvia O’Brien as her daughter Gabriele), does the drama gather momentum, and in the latter stages of Act Four and in the epilogue-like Act Five Fassbinder’s text finally achieves a limpid poeticism to match the music’s unflagging inventiveness and surprising tenderness. Nevertheless, the deeply moving climax, a portrayal of Petra in darkest despair (“It just takes a few pills, mama”), feels like a sudden discovery of dramatic effectiveness rather than the natural outcome, and its naked psychological realism sits oddly with the hell-for-leather disregard for nuances of diction and character elsewhere in the work. It is hard to know which face Barry intended to present. Certainly, ‘Bitter Tears’ flirts with naturalism in a way that no previous dramatic work of Barry’s has essayed. If an excessive identification with his subject has led him to suspend the critical impulse in the first two acts, the corresponding need to delve into his heroine’s psychology has led the composer into new and perhaps unplanned aesthetic territory in the opera’s increasingly powerful second half.

On disc one can appreciate the technical surety and musical inventiveness which remain across this aesthetic shift – or should one say, despite this aesthetic confusion? Perhaps only the next stage-work will reveal whether Barry has moved on more quickly than his commentators have followed, or whether his love affair with Fassbinder and with Petra is a brief and issue-less flirtation. In this sense, he is again like his heroine, and one emerges from the sensuous, gentle fifth act (in which Petra appears not only to regain self-control, but to adumbrate the possibility of a more productive relationship both with Karin and with her mute servant Marlene) moderately consoled, but uncertain about either his future or hers.

In both of Barry’s previous dramatic works, a preoccupation with Baroque opera – as subject matter in “The Intelligence Park”, or as parody object in ‘The Triumph’ – could be read as a strategy of avoidance of the question of more recent musical progenitors (Stravinsky, most prominently). Here, the stylistic range is both more inclusive and expressively richer: Stravinsky remains, but is joined by echoes of, among several others, Webern (both for expressive vocal inflection across wide interval leaps and for a certain kind of constructivist symmetry in the instrumental writing: check out the horn-writing on track 3 of the second disc), Schoenberg – for filigree rhythmic detailing, all repeated notes and fussy woodwind – and Strauss (for swinging, carefree music with a darker underside; and of course, can Barry have forgotten that ‘Rosenkavalier’ is the closest thing to his subject matter in the traditional operatic repertory?).

It’s hard to know whether Barry is still using note-generating/permutational systems of the sort that allowed him to build his 1988 orchestral work Chevaux-de-frise out of the names of ships that sank in the Spanish Armada, or to derive the pitch material of other works from the shipping forecast, but what’s clear is that his lines now fall into tonal/diatonic patterns which are only partially disguised by the persistence of favourite devices like simple textural accretion through canon, and by other forms of superimposition (even good old 1920s-style polytonality).

Retrospectively, this tonal tendency is evident in, say, the Nietzsche setting “The Eternal Recurrence” but would certainly be a surprise to those who regard Barry as a sort of Irish Xenakis. Does it have a symbolic or representational aspect, or has Barry’s style reached a point of new crystallisation in purely musical terms? For all its problems as a work of theatre, ‘Bitter Tears’ contains some ravishing sounds and some intriguing tendencies for those who would follow the evolution of Barry’s style; and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under its principal conductor Gerhard Markson does the music proud.

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