Amidst the clinking of champagne glasses and the clicking of picnic baskets, Glyndebourne Festival Opera serves up a grim but stirring story of religious tyranny and doomed love. Vladimir Jurowski conducts a glowing London Philharmonic Orchestra with both fire and great tenderness in the splendid premiere of Peter Eötvös’ Love and Other Demons, based on Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s 1994 novella.
Eötvös and his librettist Kornél Hamvai follow Márquez quite faithfully, although fragmentation and re-structuring of the book give an under-written feel to some of the characterisations. One of the most fascinating aspects of the original story, the relationship between the parents, is removed at a swoop, with only the father represented, but what is left is utterly compelling and quite shattering in its emotional impact.
The delicate matter of a 36-year-old priest falling in love with a 12-year-old girl is treated with great delicacy. It’s something of a latter-day Death in Venice, the first act all but ending with Aschenbach’s anguished cry of “I love you”. With the second act comes a slight lessening of dramatic tension as the consummation of the forbidden love and horrific exorcism of the child’s imagined demons is dealt with a little too economically.
Much of Eötvös’ score is languorous, with great stretches of reflective beauty punctuated by exciting brassy outbursts. Better known in this country as a conductor of other people’s work, Eötvös’ abilities as a composer are generally under-estimated here and this is a score that could well help establish his reputation. This is a work that certainly deserves to be seen and heard more widely.
Following her performance as Pretty Polly in Music Theatre Wales’ recent revival of Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy, Allison Bell (a late replacement in the role) hits the coloratura heights again as the 12 year old Sierva Maria. With a flow of flaming hair barely covering her nakedness, Bell’s is a lovely performance of great fragility, as well as vocal dexterity.
Bare-chested once more, the American baritone Nathan Gunn is virile and tortured as Delaura, the priest despatched to assess the extent of the girl’s demonic infiltration but soon devoured by his own devils. Felicity Palmer gives us another of her stern matriarchs as the abbess and Jean Rigby impresses as the chained and screeching madwoman Martina Laborde. There are strong performances also from Robert Brubaker as Sierva’s distraught father, John Graham-Hall’s physician Abrenuncio and Mats Almgren’s booming zealot of a bishop.
Silviu Purcarete’s production, with designs by Helmut Stürmer and video projections by Andu Dumitrescu, is superbly staged. There are some scalding images: Sierva Maria’s dead mother descending as a skeletal mannequin, a stream of fire flaring up at the height of passionate intensity and then turning into a river of blood. Madness and horror seep from the dingy walls.
A commission by Glyndebourne and Radio 3, this is a haunting work that I hope will see the light of day beyond the rarefied confines of Sussex’s private opera house. It deserves a less exclusive presentation.