Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Lost Highway: English National Opera @ Young Vic, London

4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11 April 2008

Lost Highway

Lost Highway (Photo: Sarah Lee)

To kick off their foray into new territory literally a move across the great dividing line of the Thames, English National Opera is presenting just six performances of Olga Neuwirth’s opera based on David Lynch’s elliptical and mystifying movie. Lost Highway was premiered in the composer’s home country of Austria in 2003 and now receives its UK premiere at the company’s temporary home, the Young Vic.

Just after David Lynch’s film came out, I interviewed his co-writer Barry Gifford in front of an audience of cinemagoers. The first question from the floor was “what were you on when you wrote that?” and, while Gifford denied he and Lynch had taken anything stronger than caffeine, you could be forgiven for thinking that hallucinogens were involved. There’s little point in giving a detailed description of the plot, suffice it to say that a man receives threatening packages in the post, is sent to death row for apparently murdering his wife and then turns into someone completely different before going on a road-movie journey through the desert (oh yes, and turns back into himself after killing the archetypal Lynch psychotic baddie).

It goes without saying that material written for one medium doesn’t always adapt easily to another. In a plot that demands (and yields) no explanation, Neuwirth and her co-librettist Elfriede Jelinek rely too heavily on voice-over to move the narrative forward. At one point we seem to be regaled with verbatim directions from the screenplay. This has some appeal as part of a patchwork approach but shows a lack of trust that form can define content. Narration of any kind is often a sign of dramatic timidity and bizarre imagery such as Lynch conjures up needs no comment or context.

Neuwirth’s music, a combination of live and recorded, is full of interesting sounds plus the odd recognisable quote, and is no more demanding than any film score, rumbling, droning and exuding mystery in every note. It’s a good 15 minutes before anyone sings and then only briefly. It’s halfway through the work before we get any sustained singing, with only sporadic use of voice thereafter. To say the singers’ skills are under-used is an understatement and the work cries out for more vocal writing.

Despite the use of actors, a good deal of spoken dialogue and a story derived from the most naturalistic of media, it’s all strangely melodramatic. David Moss is a lump of a gangster while actor Mark Bonnar reaches expressionistic levels as a man being driven crazy. Valerie MacCarthy is incredibly sexy in a succession of wigs and various states of undress and her all too brief vocal opportunities hold out further promise. Christopher Robson‘s counter-tenor is largely wasted but he does walk very slowly as the oh so mysterious Mystery Man.

All told, this is a more successful effort than ENO’s last film-turned-opera project, Gerald Barry’s take on Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Freedom from the formality of the company’s main house undoubtedly helps and designer Riccardo Hernandez has created an exciting space in the small and immediate Young Vic. A perspex box, slung above a traverse catwalk and surrounded by screens, impresses although one gets a crick in the neck with so much action taking place in this square fish-bowl well above eye level.

Under Diane Paulus‘ direction, the production is as self-consciously hip as its leather jacket-wearing oldies and gyrating, monochrome partygoers. Nevertheless, this material and multimedia approach is more likely to appeal to a new and young audience to opera than any production of Carmen, no matter how pulled out of shape it is.

Lost Highway is no masterpiece (we’ll have to wait another couple of weeks until Punch and Judy for that) but this is a step in a new and welcome direction for ENO.

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Lost Highway: English National Opera @ Young Vic, London