The Tell-Tale Heart (1 star) & A Doctor’s Tale (5 stars)

A double-bill is supposed to double your pleasure, but it could equally double your disgust. In this mélange of modern miniatures ROH2 combined the two feelings by offering a dreadful 35 minute stinker based on an Edgar Allan Poe story, and a fantastic 60 minute opera about a doctor who happens to be a dog.

Two star names drew a crowd - Stewart Copeland (composer of The Tell-Tale Heart) was once the drummer in rock band The Police, and Terry Jones (who wrote the libretto for and directed A Doctor’s Tale) was, obviously, in Monty Python. According to the ROH2 mission statement this venture was all about “supporting the development of young creative practitioners”. Very noble, however Stewart Copeland is 59 years old and Terry Jones is 69 years old. Maybe they should revise that mission statement?

First up was The Tell-Tale Heart. What a let down. How is it possible to turn a thrilling tale of suspense, guilt and madness into a 35 minute yawn? Rhythmically and melodically undernourished, the music was on the same level as the novelty cabaret act The Tiger Lillies, complete with witless pastiche, repetition galore and the world’s least exciting murder scene. The stresses of every vocal line seemed to fall in the exact same place every time, leaving no possibility of dramatic, or psychological interest. The orchestration was perfunctory, so it was hard to tell if the music was being played well or not. Occasionally stylised tableaux from director Jonathan Moore could not save this from being a non-descript, drab show.

At twice the length of its predecessor, A Doctor’s Tale absolutely zipped by! Without a doubt it was one of the most entertaining operas I have ever seen and there were wonderful performances from the cast (in acting as well as singing) and orchestra alike. Conductor Tim Murray performed a near miracle, turning CHROMA from a lacklustre rag-tag band in The Tell-Tale Heart into a rip-roaring powerhouse in A Doctor’s Tale.

The opera wasn’t just funny, it was hilarious - the conceit was entirely absurd (a doctor is struck off the medical register simply for being a dog, but his faithful patients come to his rescue) but although the audacious plot twists were a marvel, not a line of the libretto could have worked had the composer not been absolutely alive to the brilliance of the text. Anne Dudley’s score was rhythmically mercurial, had harmonic purpose, and showed a complete mastery of orchestration. In short, the music was as fresh as the story was madcap, and with a fully committed cast…(deep breath) Jonathan Gunthorpe was zany, Sadhbh Dennedy was ravishing, Darren Abrahams was sparky, Harriet Williams was touching, Peter Willcock was ludicrous (in a good way), Carolyn Dobbin was all-gusto, Susan Gorton was lovable and Michael Bracegirdle was the most virile vet in operatic history.

Amid the din of the belly-laughs there were tender moments of slushy sentiment, but the deliberate kind that doesn’t grate or love itself, and this provided a very satisfying balance.

Staging, props and costumes were unobtrusively tasteful and modest, at the same time as being funny and apt. As operas about human dogs go, it is the best around, certainly a thousand times better than A Dog’s Heart.

-Stephen Crowe