Opera + Classical Music Reviews

For You @ Playhouse, Oxford

11 July 2009

For You, the new operatic collaboration between Michael Berkeley and Ian McEwan, delivers an exciting, original work that is currently touring the country. A shared interest in psychological drama makes Berkeley and McEwan a natural creative pairing.

When the producer of For You sidled on to announce, mere moments before curtain-up, that the cast’s baritone had ‘disappeared’ but that the show would continue without him, both cast and audience appeared largely unfazed perhaps because this unexpected melodramatic blurring of art and life could not have been more apt introduction to the darkly absurd world of Michael Berkeley and Ian McEwan’s new opera.

For You is McEwan’s first foray into opera libretto, and many of the author’s habitual themes obsession, miscommunication, love find new and exciting development within the operatic framework. A shared interest in psychological drama makes Berkeley and McEwan a natural creative pairing; Berkeley’s intelligent music, with its challenging athletic textures and bursts of orchestral lyricism, sits comfortably with McEwan’s dryly potent prose, creating a work whose extraordinarily complicated plot easily the rival of any Handelian contortions flows easily and with slow-burning inevitability through its two acts.

At the opera’s centre is Charles Frieth, an egocentric composer and conductor (if that’s not a tautology) working towards the premiere of his greatest work, ‘Demonic Aubade’. Circling in his orbit are his put-upon assistant Robin, rich and sickly wife Antonia, Joan horn player and Charles’ latest floozy not forgetting Polish housekeeper Maria, whose growing love and obsession with Charles is the emotional screw that ratchets up the tension inch by inch.

The work’s drama grows out of characterisation, and fortunately the cast’s acting was every bit the equal of their singing. Nicholas Folwell’s Charles was Don Juan twenty years on, his passion lost and misdirected, flaring up only fleetingly in his final extraordinary lyric outburst. His solid baritone was tempered by the light vocal flexibility of Gail Pearson as his wife Antonia, and the gloriously rich-toned Rachel Nicholls as feisty Joan. Arlene Ralph took on the difficult character of Maria, and although her committed performance yielded dramatic menace in plenty, she perhaps lacked the vocal weight to fully render and fulfil this threat in musical terms.

Again and again through the opera it was the duets and ensembles that provided the real musical meat. Berkeley’s lyricism reached its height in the tentative vocal writhings of the duet between Antonia and Simon her would-be-lover only to be poignantly echoed and transmuted in the later love duet between Antonia and her own husband. Yet it was the final scene, with Charles’ solitary outpourings leading inexorably into the closing ensemble that really cemented the achievement of this work not only the thematic, but the musical heir of Don Giovanni.

For You is that rare thing, a true contemporary classic. If you missed out on this occasion do not fear, this is a work that, like the legend at its heart, is here to stay.

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For You @ Playhouse, Oxford