Tarik O’Regan’s Heart of Darkness [Opera East at Linbury Studio Theatre]

Tarik O’Regan
Heart of Darkness – chamber opera in one act to a libretto by Tom Phillips based on the novel by Joseph Conrad [world premiere performances]

Marlow – Alan Oke
The Thames Captain – Njabula Madiala
The Company Secretary / The Manager – Sipho Fubesi
The Doctor / The Boilermaker – Donald Maxwell
The Accountant / The Helmsman – Paul Hopwood
Kurtz – Morten Lassenius Kramp
The Harlequin – Jaewoo Kim
The River Woman / The Fiancée – Gweneth-Ann Jeffers

Orchestra CHROMA
Oliver Gooch

Edward Dick – Director
Robert Innes Hopkins – Designer
Rick Fisher – Lighting Designer
Jane Gibson – Associate Director

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 5 November, 2011
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

The heart of the title belongs to Kurtz, an ivory trader isolated deep in the 19th-century Congo; its darkness is the harrowed man’s psychosis, a terminal state caused by his symbiotically destructive relationship with his environment. In Edward Dick’s powerful staging of Tarik O’Regan’s new opera for Opera East, a co-production with ROH2, Joseph Conrad’s character all but morphed into a jungle creature himself, slithering into view like a river reptile and spewing his opening words from the depths: “I am glad”. He was played by the Danish bass Morten Lassenius Kramp, a singing actor prepared to probe physical extremes and, here, to articulate music of startling otherness. Indeed, the alien nature of the moment lent strangeness to the comfortingly familiar word “glad”, uttered as it was in greeting to Marlow, the tale’s protagonist, when he finally caught up with Kurtz after a turbulent journey up river.

Robert Innes Hopkins filled the Linbury stage with a brilliantly designed set that employed water, ropes and crates to create a vivid environment that served all the opera’s needs. (One might quibble that Victorian river steamers wouldn’t have had mast-ropes, but they certainly catch the light well.) Oliver Gooch effected an ideal balance between stage and pit, and his singers were class acts to a man (and in one case to a woman: the fine Gweneth-Ann Jeffers scored in two roles, notably as a Rafiki-style river-dweller given to Congolese vocalise). Playing the Boilermaker, Donald Maxwell relished his rough-hewn character, while as the Harlequin in Kurtz’s entourage Jaewoo Kim was lithe of limb and lively of voice. Indeed, everyone performed with talent and conviction. The opera has been exceptionally well cast, for which O’Regan must have blessed Opera East’s management.

Alan Oke sang Marlow, and he was on prime Brittenesque form for a work that locates itself confidently in the lineage of one of the greatest opera composers. O’Regan and librettist Tom Phillips nod their homage at various points to Billy Budd, Death in Venice and even The Turn of the Screw in this study of Marlow in adversity. Yet O’Regan has his own voice, and if I evoke other composers (John Adams, Michael Nyman) I do so merely to convey the music’s general soundworld. The text of the libretto is one of the best I have heard in English: nothing is poetic, the composer’s job is never superseded and Phillips’s economy of words is authoritative. In places it is redolent of Myfanwy Piper’s work for Britten, and that is a compliment. This language-sensitive creative team seizes on the musical potential of a single word, “rivets” (treated like “Rats!” in Our Hunting Fathers), and constructs an entire dance around it. What an ingenious way to lift the pervading gloom, albeit fleetingly!

The opera’s main flaw is its dramatic structure. In this retelling, Conrad’s story jumps back and forth from the ‘present’ (Marlow recounting his tale some time later, back on the Thames) to the ‘past’ and the quest for Kurtz. If I had not studied the composer’s programme note, the writers’ subtle shifts from one time to another might have disconcerted. The musical effect, doubtless intended, is more ebb-and-flow than to-and-fro, and that carries a risk of confusion. Edward Dick compounds this potential for puzzlement, for he leaves the story’s chronology to its own devices and changes little of the visual picture along the way. There are other reservations: the ivory expedition is left underexplored, which means Kurtz has no context, and the 75-minute running time does not allow for adequate character development among the minor roles. Kurtz’s Fiancée, for example, barely registers.

Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings this is a terrific new work, intelligently staged and magnificently performed by some fine singers and by the richly committed instrumentalists of CHROMA. Taken as a whole, Heart of Darkness has more going for it that many new operas, and I left the auditorium longing to hear it again – preferably immediately, certainly soon. The tour mooted for 2012 cannot happen quickly enough.

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