The Jette Parker Young Artists at the Linbury Studio
If Sartre's damned trio discovers that hell is other people, the three fallen souls imagined by the director José Dario Innella are doomed to suffer torments of their own in a landscape where quests go unfulfilled and questions unanswered.
They occupy Rainer Maria Rilke's "in-between land", a place suspended 'twixt life and death that's a stone's throw from Purgatory. At the centre of The Truth About Love (a title taken from one of the Auden texts to Britten's Cabaret Songs) are poems from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet that have been shaped into a cycle by composer and cast member Steven Ebel. Interspersed among these, as well as the Britten numbers, are the desperate songs of Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben
By this slender thread hangs a tale – no, a vision – of lost life and love. Soprano Elisabeth Meister appears dolled up like Berg's dead Lulu, although she it is who sings the Britten. The Estonian mezzo Kai Rüütel could pass for Britten's dead Miss Jessel, but she sings the Schumann. As for Ebel, a strong tenor in the Britten style, he delivers his Rilke settings dressed for all the world like Gary Oldman's rejuvenated Dracula. Oblivious death haunts the stage in an atmosphere not dissimilar to Amenábar's film The Others.
This playful redolence of half-familiar images adds fascination to a concoction that, of itself, lacks originality or substance. It is hypnotic to behold, with the austere beauty of Alejandra Espector's décor beautifully lit by Donald Cox; however, for the audience, watching the piece unfold echoes the characters' own experience, as every substantial fragment of meaning crumbles to dust when we reach for it. Innella directs his material with an assured eye, but even he cannot fashion a dramatic shape from such diaphanous ideas.
There is a further problem: we have Red Petal Alert. Goodness, do they flog job lots of these things to the opera houses? I opined here a few months ago about the hackneyed use of rose confetti in Anthony Minghella's Madam Butterfly, but this is something else again. Buckets of the little devils are tipped over the Linbury stage at various moments as emblems of dashed hope. Roses may have been a recurring symbol in Rilke, but as visual aids they do outstay their welcome. Sadly, moreover, the related cliché of red cloths for open wounds also makes a dispiriting appearance late on.
The singers are excellent when they sing, embarrassing when they speak (it is tough enough for a trained actor to declaim poetry in a dramatic context, so Innella would have done well to protect his players from the spoken word). All three sustain unnerving levels of focus as they roam their environment with Noh-like restraint. Ebel gives an especially concentrated performance, ethereal in his songs and barely corporeal in his presence. The musical lines of his Diary of a Young Poet are beautifully tonal, their chromatic progressions broken by refreshingly unexpected intervals, but they are let down by unimaginative piano writing. Meister is bold, ironic and characterful in the Britten while Rüütel's voice, though a shade too operatic for Schumann's lyrical despondency, gains in poise as the evening progresses.
The antiphonal pianos of David Gowland and Steven Moore add their own measure of theatricality to an evening that compensates in mood for its shortcomings as drama.