Opera North has put together one of the country’s most brilliant satirists, opera directors and composers to collaborate on its latest commission. Expectations for Skin Deep were high, but the end result is nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.
It’s hard to know where to begin. On paper Opera North seemed to have got it right. Commissioning an operatic libretto from Armando Iannucci was a shrewd move; he is one of the country’s leading satirists, and The Thick of It is nothing short of genius. David Sawer is without doubt one the country’s most interesting composers; his last major operatic foray, From Morning to Midnight, which received its premiere at ENO in 2001, was a palpable success.
Add the most exciting opera director at large these days, namely Richard Jones (who was also responsible for Midnight) and you have a potent mix of talent that you’d be hard-pushed to bring together under most circumstances these days. So what went wrong? How did this pool of talent concoct such a tedious, unfunny, instantly forgettable and unbelievably turgid piece of theatre?
Billed as an operetta, and set in Dr Needlemeier’s Alpine cosmetic surgery, Skin Deep sets its stall out as a parody of the whole cosmetic enterprise putting right what nature got wrong as we’re constantly told. Yet in choosing a theme that is so transient and ephemeral to start with, Skin Deep is left with nowhere to go. Characters fail to develop and after a while it simply becomes boring. True, Iannucci’s libretto is peppered with funny one-liners and ingenious rhymes, and there are occasional flashes of inspiration in Sawer’s hand-me down score, but not enough of either to maintain tension or interest over three acts.
Even the usually-resourceful Jones is stumped by what he has to direct, and without a work of genius to play with is left floundering and as a result falls back on tired old clichés and stereotypes. The cast is good with Geoffrey Dolton outstanding as Needlemeier whilst having Mark Stone in the relatively small role of Mark Pollock is luxury casting by anyone’s standards. Janis Kelly did what she could with the role of Lania and there was able support from Heather Shipp and Andrew Tortoise.
Otherwise this was a bitterly disappointing evening that promised much but delivered little. Opera North rarely puts a foot wrong, and is often the most exciting company in the country these days, yet Skin Deep is a blemish on an otherwise impeccable record. The audience was a lot younger and hipper than I’ve seen at an operatic performance in London for a long while but I just pray that Skin Deep doesn’t put them off opera for life.
After the Sadler’s Wells run ends on 21 February 2009, Skin Deep will appear at The Lowry, Salford Quays, 26 February, and then at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, 4 March.