Alexander Goehr’s variation on Shakespeare’s King Lear is a stunning piece of music theatre in James Conway’s premiere production for English Touring Opera. Geohr’s score is an uncompromisingly 21st century one but it perfectly illuminates this pared-down morality myth as visualised by the director and designer Adam Wiltshire.
We are in a stark animalistic world; nature is indeed red in tooth and claw. Sardonic master of its ceremonies is Edmund; by the end, God has indeed stood up for bastards. Lear himself and Gloucester have paid the highest price for their wilful choices among their progeny but so have the innocent. Goehr and his co-librettist Frank Kermode have allocated the roles of both Cordelia and the Fool to a single mezzo-soprano with moving effect.
The Aurora Orchestra and conductor Ryan Wigglesworth are on-stage throughout, albeit behind a dark gauze. The nine singers enter and confront us, the audience, before a single note has sounded; they too are on-stage throughout. It’s a reminder that stories do not happen in a vacuum. Shakespeare’s words are clearly enunciated as the music weaves its complementary track across them. You can’t (and shouldn’t) in this context separate the one from the other.
As Cordelia and the Fool Lina Markeby makes a strong impact, as does Nicholas Garrett’s Edmund. Those two foolish fond old men – Lear and Gloucester – are finely acted and sung by Roderick Earle and Nigel Robson, with Julia SporsénJacqueline Varsey equally forceful predatory as Regan and Goneril. Adrian Dwyer is an Edgar who matures from trust into acceptance and understanding. Fittingly for an opera and for all the displayed stage craft, this is a drama about not-seeing. To hear is to understand.