Although Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune is based on the traditional Sicilian folk tale, Sfortuna, this new opera, which premiered at last year’s Bregenz Festival, could hardly feel more modern. The basic story, which sees Tina (or Miss Fortune) abandon wealth to start a new life, only to be dealt cruel blows by Fate, may be highly traditional, but the setting has been updated both by the composer and Chen Shi-Zheng’s production.
Although it is not always captivating, there are many pleasing qualities to Weir’s music. Vocal lines are skilfully constructed to run over and under one another, solos are subtly supported with a variety of instruments, and the chorus chant to strong dramatic effect. It remains, however, a contemplative rather than arousing score. When John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer recently appeared at the Coliseum, many suggested it would have worked better as a concert performance, and such a platform might allow for greater appreciation of the music here. In the event, we are offered a staging that, although not unsuccessful, actually works against the grain of the music by trying to spice things up. It may introduce break dancing, courtesy of the Soul Mavericks, but it never hits dramatic heights (even the explosion of a kebab van feels slightly underwhelming), and in the process detracts from our understanding of the score.
The staging is most successful at applying subtle effects to Tom Pye’s neon lighted, minimalist set. Fragmentation is a recurring theme, and the stage’s central motif is a shard that in turn becomes a parapet from which Tina ‘star gazes,’ and a plane tail when her parents fly off, before it reflects a burning sweatshop from the previous scene. Similarly, as we stare at a series of washing machines in a launderette, some can be seen actually spinning with their clothes, which occasionally turn into lottery balls.
The cast perform well, with a fine-voiced Emma Bell readily embracing the role of Tina. This is no mean feat when, decked out with red hair, dress and tights, she is more a caricature than a character. Other strong performances come from Noah Stewart as Hassan, Jacques Imbrailo as Simon and particularly Andrew Watts, whose gripping countertenor voice makes the personification of Fate so intriguing. In the pit, Paul Daniel conducts with an inherent sensitivity towards Weir’s creation that also helps us to reflect on the full range of orchestral colours and hues.
For all that the opera is supposed to meditate on the themes of luck, chance, fortune and fate, it never really delves beneath the surface of these, while the libretto, also by Weir, is deeply disappointing. I don’t object to the use of straightforward language, but it says a lot that in this opera, ‘Go! So here’s a broom. Now sweep this very big room’, does not stand out as a particularly poor line. In Miss Fortune we experience interesting music, intriguing staging and strong vocal performances, but also something that does not quite add up to the sum of its parts.
The Royal Opera House’s Miss Fortune will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 19 May at 18.00.