“Well, it’s different” muttered a woman in front of me at the interval. The trouble is it’s not, though, because Alexander Goehr’s new opera ploughs an over-familiar furrow of stale modernity. “It’s all much of a muchness” said someone else, coming closer to the mark.
A composer who sets Shakespeare to music must have something to say, otherwise why bother? Britten found a musical voice that allowed him to explore the amorality of innocence in A Midsummer Night’s Dream while Verdi, who delved into Otello’s psychology, used music to express emotional complexities that transcend mere words. But King Lear, with its histrionic sufferings and hard-wrought tragedy, is practically a grand opera already, which may explain why both these composers pulled back from the brink of setting it.
Goehr’s adaptation is no epic, except in the Germanic sense of theatrical alienation. Instead, he has chosen to focus on a few key aspects of Shakespeare’s great canvas and, working with the late academic Frank Kermode, distilled these into Promised End, a Brecht- and Noh-inspired chamber opera for nine singers in 24 scenes.
Musically, English Touring Opera’s production is first-rate. The Aurora Orchestra under Ryan Wigglesworth renders Goehr’s unusual orchestration (one violin but two tubas) with cohesiveness and precision, while a first-division set of singers do all they can to breathe dramatic life into uncharacterised vocal lines. Even so, notwithstanding everyone’s heroics, the expressive poverty of the opera is such that audiences who lack a working knowledge of Shakespeare’s original play are likely to be stumped by it.
Roderick Earle is in rich voice as an appropriately broken Lear (fretful rather than mad in this interpretation) while Nigel Robson, though no longer in his vocal prime, creates an unforgettable Gloucester, brimming with pain and heartbreak. Goehr and Kermode’s abridgement focuses strongly on these two characters, and the performances are powerful. Elsewhere, Nicholas Garrett sings and acts with great commitment as the wicked Edmund while the excellent Lina Markeby doubles as a low-impact Cordelia and a very striking Fool.
Ever respectful of the composer’s avowed intent, director James Conway eggs his staging with as many Germano-Japanese touches as he can cram into its two short acts – stylised make-up, ritualised costume changes, choric commentary and the like – but he is battling a score which, unlike that previous Noh-inspired piece, Curlew River, lacks any sense of atmosphere or place. Conway and his designer, Adam Wiltshire, make a valiant effort to fill in the music’s dramatic blanks, but the odds are stacked against them.
The entire company is made up of fine artists capable of intriguing, stirring and moving us, but Goehr gives them scant opportunity to do any such thing. Despite the richness of the source material – it’s King Lear, for goodness’ sake – the score is almost entirely undramatic. From time to time the music may illustrate something, but it illuminates nothing.