Almeida Festival – John Casken: God’s Liar – 6th July

John Casken
God’s Liar

libretto by the composer and Emma Warner
World Premiere (co-production with Theatre de la Monnaie, Brussels)

Stepan/Father Sergius – Omar Ebrahim
Stephen – Jeffrey Lentz
The Woman – Anne Bolstad

Director – Keith Warner
Designer – John Lloyd Davies
Costume Designer – Roswitha Gerlitz

Almeida Ensemble conducted by Ronald Zollman

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 July, 2001
Venue: Almeida at King’s Cross, London

Thirteen years ago, the then Almeida Festival premiered John Casken’s first opera, Golem, which, at subsequent revivals and on disc, has proved among the more distinctive British stage-works of recent years. So it is appropriate that the now Almeida Opera should launch his much-anticipated second opera.

God’s Liar derives from a short story written by Tolstoy at the outset of what one might reasonably call his ’moralist’ phase, when art as a self-contained aesthetic was eschewed in favour of an almost didactic approach – how art ought to function in society.

The original story concerns the rejection (on questionable moral grounds, it would appear to many today) of material advancement by Imperial guardsman Stepan Kasatsky and his subsequent tortured monastic existence as Father Sergius, whose qualities as a healer are offset by finally successful attempts to seduce him. Confessing his guilt to a peasant woman, he is inspired to join a pilgrimage – only to be deported to Siberia as a vagrant. Into this narrative Casken and co-librettist Emma Warner have integrated the experience of Stephen, an academic researcher into the life of Sergius who, having sold his study to a literary agent so as to communicate his convictions to a wider public, sees it mercilessly rewritten in the interests of Hollywood melodrama. Seeking a common truth in their lives, Stephen is drawn ever more closely into Stepan’s predicament; coming across a beggar in whom he recognises Stepan, he is left contemplating no obvious outcome to the overriding existential question.

It is an intriguing and finely-judged attempt to infuse a defined literary work with the speculative relevance of a contemporary scenario, drawing them ever-more closely together so that the experiences of the main protagonists become intertwined. Temptation and realisation are central to them both, and Casken underlines this by allotting all the female roles to one singer – the archetypal female – culminating in those of confessor and, in the final scene, member of the crowd whose message is the same: “one good deed, one cup of water, worth more than all the lies” – the one notional truth to be drawn from the opera.

Musically the score is as subtly detailed and as flexible to the needs of dramatic momentum as one would expect from the composer of Golem. Casken’s is not a distinctive musical persona; rather the styles and influences accrued over more than three decades of composition have resulted in an idiom appropriate to the project at hand. Powerfully-drawn vocal lines project the text with admirable clarity and help keep the complementary male characters in focus, never more so than at the point in scene 5 where Stepan and Stephen appear to each other across time – a spellbinding moment of theatre. Musical analogy provides a means of unifying the female singer’s disparate roles, enhanced in this production by a minimally-varied outfit for her appearances. All in all, God’s Liar is a thoughtful equating of narrative ambiguity with dramatic immediacy.

A regular of many Almeida productions from the 1980s, singer-actor Omar Ebrahim gave of his best as the complex and not always sympathetic duality that is Stepan/Sergius, his often unyielding vocal writing in contrast to the more lyrical approach of Stephen, sung with evident identity, if a little strain in moments of high tension, by Jeffrey Lentz. Anne Bolstad differentiated her numerous roles, overplaying the personas of seductress or Hollywood actress with the same conviction as she portrayed the peasant woman, or the woman from the crowd, with almost mystical calm.

Keith Warner’s direction made full use of the Omega Theatre’s considerable width, with Stepan and Stephen sitting in parallel towards either end, and the woman characters often entering along a fluorescent blue ’time-line’ running diagonally across the two-tone floor design. Lighting was spare but telling in the numerous monologues given to the male singers, while the sextet of voices forming a sort of anti-chorus were freely deployed according to the needs of the scene at hand.

Ronald Zollman secured a vivid response from the Almeida Ensemble, alive to the many moments of theatrical intensity while ensuring that the subtle harmonic inflections of Casken’s music were exquisitely brought out. As an overall production, this is among the most successful in recent Almeida Opera seasons. With only two further performances of the premiere-run scheduled, it is worth making the effort to attend.

  • Further performances on July 10 and 14 at 7.30 p.m.Box Office: 020 7359 4404
  • Performances in Brussels on 6, 7, 9 and 10 October

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