This is clearly the year for Opera North to commission operas about scientists, but nothing could be further from Skin Deep, David Sawer’s sporadically entertaining satire on plastic surgery, than The Weather Man, a meditation on the work of Charles Darwin, but more especially the life of Robert FitzRoy, Captain of the Beagle, Darwin’s friend and later opponent.
Nobody could accuse the Leeds-based companies of retreating to their ivory towers in the theatrically dark days of summer. Two days previously I saw Dust, the West Yorkshire Playhouse putting its resources and expertise behind a community play agitating for support for mesothelioma research. Now Opera North has co-operated with Shropshire Council to commission a tribute to Shrewsbury-born Charles Darwin.
The resulting triple-bill is a thought-provoking tribute to the great man in his bicentenary year, all the better for not being in any way predictable: no hagiography, no respectful re-telling of his life-story. However, it is difficult to see it lasting beyond the celebrations: the main constituent part, Paul Clark and John Binias’ opera, well controlled in tone, with fair variation within a limited structure, works well enough, but probably lacks the individuality for long theatrical life.
The evening begins with a scientific lecture, In praise of Darwin’s Mistakes, considering the omissions in evolutionary theory as well as its insights. Much more interesting (even amusing) than I expected, the lecture benefits from a breezily iconoclastic text by Dutch biologist Arjen Mulder (bacteria’s best apologist!) and an intelligent delivery, poised on the brink of theatricality, by Geoffrey Streatfeild. Follow the Voice, a short film by Marcus Coates, is a pleasing jeu d’esprit, filming everyday objects and events with their true sound, sometimes distorted, and/or sounds of nature, stags bellowing, birds singing.
The Weather Man uses an unusual set of resources: a narrator, one singer (baritone) and a string quartet, very limited movement and a set of chairs, as both seats and props. FitzRoy, as presented (I suspect, accurately) in John Binias’ script, was a typically tormented Victorian of the moral persuasion, doomed by a rigid sense of duty.
Robert Poulton makes the most of the opera’s lyrical moments, long meditative melodic lines occasioned by such things as his father’s death or his feelings of betrayal by Darwin, but the burden of the text is carried by Sarah Belcher. She cleverly balances a detached knowingness and awed sympathy as the text moves from story-telling to analysis. There is a problem of projecting some of the long sentences of ironic narration at speed against the music of the string quartet and the baritone’s sung interjections.
Paul Clark’s music reinforces mood admirably and, after FitzRoy’s tragic suicide, finds a suitable glow for the optimistically Darwinian ending, but tends to be subservient to the text.