Blowing its own trumpet as a laboratory for new opera, the Riverside Studios’ festival prides itself on presenting a heaving amount of new work to a hungry audience. The premise is bold, and the ratio of good to bad is naturally in favour of the indifferent.
Stephen Crowe’s new opera was one of the absolute gems of the festival. Inspired by the 1986 episode of Melvyn Bragg’s South Bank Show, Crowe’s libretto takes the original interview as his libretto word-for-word, retaining Bacon’s ricocheting thought-processes as he gradually reveals more and more of his reeling, wayward brain. The lubricating ingredient for the whole thing is alcohol, and as Melvyn Bragg manages to match Bacon unit for unit the intensity is palpable.
Brilliant casting is always a vital aspect of a two-hander and Oliver Brignall’s portrayal of Bragg has a comic edge and dynamic flair, while Christopher Killerby’s Bacon magnifies the painter’s intelligent sensitivity. Their voices are chalk and cheese, Bragg’s has forceful drive, while Bacon’s is all mellifluous succulence, and though the mix is odd, the pairing undoubtedly works.
As a transcript of an interview one might expect a singular lack of dramatic arc vital for something which calls itself an opera. However, the form of short question/long answer does share something with the recitative/aria form of an old-fashioned numbers opera, since Bacon’s ponderous speech-making suits developed introspective word-setting. As the drinking becomes more and more prodigious so too do the statements from Bacon- one particular highlight sees Bragg join in with the ribaldry as the two men fall over themselves to extol the virtues of ‘voluptuousness’, Crowe setting the words as the ultimate updating of Monteverdi’s ‘Pur ti Miro’, with a homoerotic twist.
The singers are supported with dazzling virtuosity by Elspeth Wilkes whose piano jangles, stabs and throbs in accord with the onstage antics, never simply accompanying, but providing further insight to what is said and unsaid, as well as illustrating the many references to painters such as Monet, Velasquez, Jackson Pollock and Rothko.
I predict big things for this opera, which manages to fuse uncompromisingly ‘modern’ music with very direct, expressive sensibility. If you’re heading up to Edinburgh be sure to catch it at the Fringe as The Francis Bacon Opera is profoundly clever, funny and original.