World Premiere – ETO presents Alexander Goehr’s Promised End9:45, 12th February 2013
Opera Now correspondent, Robert Thicknesse, reports:
Promised End, the title of English Touring Opera’s first ever commission, comes from the last scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the inspiration for this new opera by the composer-scholar Alexander Goehr.
There is no objective reason why a Lear opera shouldn’t work. Goehr’s attempt at least limits itself to one aspect of the play, concentrating on the self-destruction of two foolish old men, Lear and Gloucester. The late scholar, Sir Frank Kermode, helped Goehr to select 24 scenes and edit the text. The result is a kind of fast-forward palimpsest of the play, familiar lines flashing by and a great deal of knowledge taken for granted. ETO’s boss James Conway, who directs this production, was at pains to distance opera from play – but without considerable knowledge of the latter this would be a puzzling show indeed.
As it is, it’s just boring. Goehr has gone ritualistic, which is not in itself a bad idea when you need to produce a miniature version. But his Noh-influenced product is so telegraphic, so depersonalised, there is nothing human in it to attach your brain or heart to; neither is there any noticeable attempt to justify setting the play to music in the first place.
Two characters on stage come closest to some sort of life, Lina Markeby’s doubled Cordelia and Fool, and Nicholas Garrett as that caricature of evil, Edmund; the first because her music is individualised, a sort of Weimar version of Olde-Englysshe lute songs; the second because he delivers his words with a spitting relish that makes him sound like the only person on stage performing in his native language. Roderick Earle is an unengaging Lear but it’s not his fault particularly – the character is simply written without much affection. And neither is Gloucester, sung by Nigel Robson.
The word-setting itself is pretty dire, a lesson in how to denature poetry. The text is, however, set against a strangely attractive score, spikily lyrical but diffuse and unimaginatively scored: blocks of wind or strings, a clarinet and violin in wandering counterpoint, occasionally something more interesting concocted by chamber organ and guitar. The greatest pleasure in the show is listening to this series of what Goehr calls ‘preludes’, though it is very much faute de mieux. A chorus – Greece through the eyes of Brecht – occasionally comments in pleasantly clustered chords.
Conway does what he can, with a simple, stylised, elegant and atmospheric staging that owes something to Noh and something to Samuel Beckett. What he can’t hide is the incredibly dated nature of this work – and this is the final impression: a composer who, unlike his contemporaries Davies and Birtwistle, never grew out of the Seventies, cloistered himself in Cambridge and finally produced what will never amount to more than a footnote to his career.