We don’t get operatic world premieres very often, probably because the main bulk of the operatic audience simply does not appreciate more modern styles of writing. Examples include Berg’s Wozzeck, recently put on at Covent Garden to often half-empty houses. It is a sad fact that only those premieres with big names (such as Sophie’s Choice, also at the House, which had Simon Rattle and Trevor Nunn at the helm) can attract an audience. Being a composer myself, I can imagine that the composer and librettist, Anthony Bailey, must have been feeling rather proud at having his opera premièred in the wonderful Bloomsbury Theatre.
Having graduated from the Royal College of Music in 2001, the young composer and clarinettist’s opera The Black Monk is based on the play of the same name by Anton Chekhov, which tells the story of a schizophrenic writer (here named The Man), and his marriage with The Daughter, the offspring of his guardian.
In one act, there follows the story of their wedding, the subsequent decline in his mental health, and his eventual madness taking hold. It’s rather a strong story, which in some ways has been fruitfully realised in the libretto, but in other ways lacks in deep thoughts and emotions. This was evident in one of the first scenes in The Daughter’s part, when in a couple of passages it seemed that a single line was repeated simply too often. On another note, the role of the father is very limited, and he is only seen at the beginning. When we are told that he has died, it is a little hard to sympathise with the situation, as we do not have enough knowledge of him. Although the current balance of plot is very good, the story could perhaps do with a tiny bit of development in all areas.
The excellent William Berger (The Man) demonstrates deep mental blindness and unrest in his behaviour on stage, while Jenny Ohlson delivers a highly mature performance as the exasperated wife. Excellent bass-baritone Rodney Clarke’s Monk delivers an effortless healthy performance, and keeps his composure throughout. Christopher Dixon as the father is miscast, simply because of his young looks: he has a golden singing voice, and does his best (and mostly succeeds) to play an old man effectively.
A few adjustments (and only a few) are necessary for the piece to work as an entity; the music is wonderful in its portrayal of the descent into madness. Only from time to time do the curtains surrounding the action present a restricting barrier between the audience and the action, but that said, there really is something to shout about here. Sumptuous harmonies combine with a maelstrom of interesting melodies and rhythms (the central jazz scene is the best), and I certainly felt sucked into the story through the medium of music.
An interesting and innovative stage design was wonderfully evocative (especially a scene when The Daughter opens the curtains and the stage is magically transformed from chaotic night to serene day), and some excellent video work complements the action on stage but never detracts from it.
Outstanding soloists provided an interesting and thought-provoking evening, while Toby Purser conducted the excellent Sirius Ensemble with masterful professionalism.