Opera North – Skin Deep

Skin Deep – Operetta in three acts to a libretto by Arnando Ianucci

Dr Needlemeier, a plastic surgeon – Geoffrey Dolton
Lania, his wife – Janis Kelly
Donna, his receptionist – Heather Shipp
Elsa, his daughter – Amy Freston
Robert, a villager – Andrew Tortise
Luke Pollock, a Hollywood actor – Mark Stone
Susannah Dangerfield, a reporter – Gwendoline Christie

Chorus & Orchestra of Opera North
Richard Farnes

Richard Jones – Director
Stewart Laing – Set & costume director
Mimi Jordan Sherrin – Lighting designer
Linda Dobell – Choreographer & movement director

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 February, 2009
Venue: Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

The boundary-line between reality and illusion is a pervasive yet often elusive one in contemporary culture – and nowhere more so than with the subject of plastic surgery. A subject, indeed, that was ripe for theatrical presentation, as David Sawer and Arnando Ianucci no doubt realised at the outset of a collaboration that became the operetta “Skin Deep” and which received its premiere in Leeds last month. This was its second appearance in Opera North’s week-long residency at Sadler’s Wells.

Nothing is left to chance in Richard Jones’s staging, which proceeds from the evocation of a Swiss beauty clinic (or “aesthetic surgery” as the synopsis deftly describes it) – all pristine furnishings and décor in which white and pink predominate – in the first two acts to the spectacle of a Californian compound, with look-a-like patients and its denouement atop a giant vat containing the elixir of eternal youth, in the third. Further enhancement is provided by Stewart Laing’s sets and costumes – what might be described as ‘Brave New World’ imagery re-imagined for the “Hollyoaks” generation – as well as Mimi Jordan Sherrin’s suitably garish lighting and Linda Dobell’s athletic choreography. Such facets point up the continuity between operetta and show – connected genres that have found increasing favour with UK opera houses but have rarely been staged with the style and immediacy evident here.

Although he has been at the cutting-edge of alternative comedy for over a decade, Ianucci has only now involved himself in creating a libretto. That for “Skin Deep” bears ample witness to his facility with words and wordplay, though the decision to write the text in rhyming verse often leads to text which seems stilted, while the frequent recourse to punch-lines often verges on the contrived and thus detracts from the music’s parallel contribution. More surprising is the author’s (intended?) detachment from characters who, if they could hardly be expected to arouse sympathy, might have summoned greater empathy as the work unfolds. Come the third act and it hardly seems to matter what the protagonists are called, let alone who they are – a conceptual cul-de-sac that Ianucci is not unused to finding his way out of (as the readers of his column in “Gramophone” magazine may concur) but which leaves his text stranded, whether intellectually or emotionally, high and dry.

Part of this problem may well lie with Sawer’s music. That ‘operetta’ as a genre requires the instant communicability of words is unarguable, but the relative simplification of idiom here is too much of a good thing: certainly those who valued his first full-length stage-work “From Morning to Midnight” (inexplicably never revived by English National Opera since its first run in 2001) for the richness and ambiguity of its orchestral writing will likely be disappointed by much of what is heard here. While a tendency merely to ‘set’ text does not persist beyond the first 20 minutes or so, the instrumental texture often amounts to little more than highly sophisticated window-dressing. Nor are the vocal lines especially memorable, idiomatically conceived and executed with real finesse though these are – resulting in characters that are articulated in expressive clichés and which, in turn, reinforces the sense of all-enveloping stereotype rather than even the slightest possibility of its transcendence.

The casting is dependable, often more so. Geoffrey Dolton took time to get going as Needlemeier, yet an egomania bordering on the psychotic is evident even before the elixir over which he obsesses is brought into play while his arias in the first two acts give him ample scope for characterisation. A pity the role descends into farce in the third act, though the other two principals fare little better. Janis Kelly conveyed the self-absorbed narcissism of Lania to perfection, but her desperation after the facial ‘swap’ with Donna does not presage the opening-up of character that could have focussed the dramatic thrust of Act Three. Donna undergoes greater ‘development’, though this seems more to do with Heather Shipp’s identity with the role than the intensifying expression of text or music.

Amy Freston was fresh-toned and appealing as Elsa, yet has relatively little to do in the work’s latter stages, whereas Andrew Tortise’s engaging initial appearances as Robert are shoehorned into self-communing solos that arrest rather than heighten the ongoing drama. Mark Stone was on vibrant form as Luke Pollock (his name subject to increasingly predictable wordplay), the vainglorious star reduced to a shadow of his former self, though whether this makes his role more sympathetic is debatable. The smaller roles were stylishly taken – though not, sadly, the spoken part of Susannah Dangerfield, in which Gwendoline Christie seemed unsure how to play the role or even phrase her lines. Whether or not her part was a late addition, its function could surely have been clarified at the pre-production phase.

No such reservations over the orchestral playing, which did justice to the music’s timbral subtlety and tonal conceits, while Richard Farnes conducted with a sure sense of where the drama is headed, so ensuring the final stages were not wanting theatrical immediacy. As a production, “Skin Deep” is no mean achievement: in other respects, it can only be judged a qualified success – a triumph of style over substance that aligns it more closely with its subject than Sawer and Ianucci may have intended.

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