From Morning to Midnight
(Opera in Seven Scenes)
Libretto by the composer, after Georg Kaiser
John Daszak (tenor) Cashier; Kathryn Harries (soprano) Lady; Gail Pearson (soprano) – Salvation Army Girl; Robert Poulton (baritone) – Manager/Steward/Pimp 1/Family Man; Graeme Danby (bass) – Fat Man/Steward/Pimp 2/Thief; Mark Le Brocq (tenor) – Commissionaire/Steward/Racing Cyclist; Menai Davies (mezzo-soprano) – Customer/Mother/Tea Lady; Linda Kitchen (soprano) – Messenger Boy/Daughter/Hostess 1/Prostitute; Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano) – Wife/Hostess 2/Salvation Army Officer; Roderick Williams (baritone) – Steward/Waiter; Fredrik Strid (tenor) – Steward/Pimp 3; Heather Shipp (mezzo) – Chambermaid/Hostess 3
English National Opera Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins
Richard Jones (director); Stewart Laing (designer); Mimi Jordan-Sherin (lighting designer); Linda Dobell (movement director)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 27 April, 2001
Venue: English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martins Lane
No one could accuse ENO of repetition in its annual commissions. The intense realism of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie last year could not be in greater contrast with the fluid expressionism of David Sawer’s From Morning to Midnight. Expressionism as a genre needs to be taken advisedly: this is not an opera of emotional high angst or imploding egos; rather it deals with an unexceptional but common facet in modern Western society – that split-second impulse that transforms a life irrevocably.
In the making for some four-and-a-half years (its genesis detailed in Sawer’s informative Diary of an Opera included in the programme), From Morning to Midnight is an adaptation of Georg Kaiser’s prototypical expressionist play ’Von morgens bis mitternachts’ of 1912. Ever prescient in his depiction of social alienation, Kaiser’s title should be taken literally. As Tim Ashley points out in his programme article, ’From Every Morning to Every Midnight’ more accurately describes the thrust of the play: focusing on the actual process of action, rather than delineating character as such.
It is here that Sawer’s treatment is most questionable. In the snow-covered field of scene 3 – following the Cashier’s reckless decamping with 60,000 marks, only to find that the Lady at the bank is not a crook but a bona fide art-collector – there is a monologue in which he agrees a Faustian pact that death may claim him at midnight, in return for an afternoon of monetary enlightenment. Sawer seems uncertain whether to define the Cashier as a human entity, making him the focal point of what will follow, or treat him as incidental to a chain of events, over which he will have no discernible influence. What transpires seems fudged: instead of being a still-centre around which the drama revolves, the scene feels more a static interlude in a linear sequence of episodes. This shifts the perception of the opera in a way that Sawer may not have intended, the Cashier never engaging our sympathy as fully as he should.
Certainly the other six scenes work well, both as instances of stereotypical behaviour, and as a streamlined overview of one person’s 15-hour ’Fall to Crucifixion’. Sawer’s idiom, absorbing harmonic elements of Debussy and Messiaen, as well as more gestural ones from Britten, impresses itself on the listener’s mind, and is flexible enough to draw the scenic contrasts into a cohesive whole. In this, he is aided by Richard Jones’s tellingly thought-through direction, and Stewart Laing’s plain but appealing designs.
Thus the routine of bank life in scene 1 is given an aura of mindless repetition, Sawer’s decision to withhold the voices in the opening minutes amply justified, and the confrontation with the Lady in scene 2 a finely-judged duet of mis-communication. The social collapse brought about in the Cashier’s house in Scene 4 has an appropriate ’kitchen-sink’ humour, with Sawer’s working of the Tannhäuser mis-rendition into the musical fabric a deft touch. The Velodome races of scene 5 are well brought-off theatrically, though the arrival of the Kaiser is a potential coup-de-theatre that, at least on opening night, was muffed. Likewise the nightclub ambience of scene 6, lucidly structured as a musico-dramatic scherzo with three trios, but too redolent of similar scenes in Berg’s Lulu either to provoke or amuse. Yet the sequence in the Salvation Army hall of scene 7 ties up the narrative strands effectively, characters re-emerging to confess their sins more out of opportunism than contrition – as the response to the Cashier’s distribution of wealth and his betrayal by the ’War Cry’ vendor amply confirms. His Nietzschean death-rasp is superb theatrical understatement, after which the Policeman’s pay-off is an unnecessary distraction.
There can be nothing but praise for John Daszak’s assumption of the Cashier, on stage for almost all of the opera’s 110 minutes. Projecting with conviction what sounds a gratefully-written vocal line, he evokes sympathy and not a little pathos in his ineptitude, even if the Everyman conception of his character precludes greater identification. Kathryn Harries makes an appealing Lady in the opening two scenes, snapping the Cashier out of his existential stupor. Gail Pearson strikes the right pose as the not so jejune Salvation Army Girl. Of the remaining vocalists, all taking on multiple roles, Mark Le Brocq’s Commissionaire, Linda Kitchen’s Daughter, Susan Bickley’s Salvation Army Officer and Roderick Williams’s Waiter impress as vignettes who essentialise something of their particular scenes. Martyn Brabbins gets a committed response from the ENO orchestra; passing awkwardness, as with the mysterious extra curtain in scene 4, will no doubt be ironed out over the run.
Whatever its conceptual uncertainties, From Morning to Midnight is absorbing theatre; less a morality play than a parable of amorality. Sawer offers neither condemnation nor indictment – but a barbed entertainment, to which the audience responded with knowing but uneasy enthusiasm.
- Further performances on May 4, 9 and 15 at 7.30; May 12 at 6.30
- Box Office: 020 7632 8300 (tel) / 020 7379 1264 (fax)