I believe this production has sauntered off to its next destination but if you happen to come across it at your local receiving house, my best advice would be to wear a tinfoil hat to prevent dangerous cross-contamination with the waves of crazy emitted from it.
Arriving rushed and flustered to this performance, I knew very little about what I was about to see. A glance at the programme indicated I was about to be charmed and seduced by an intimate folk opera set in sunny South America, and so it was when the curtain went up. Full marks to every visual creative involved here, the show looks fantastic. What was problematic was that from the first note, the show bangs hard on every single opera cliché to almost zero effect. Worse than that is that bizarre casting, staging and story choices snap credulity in two.
Everything but the kitchen sink gets an outing here: The mad character sings on her knees a lot whilst doing what drama teachers call “witch hands”; anything to do with the anticipation of sex is sung with one’s back to a wall, arms outstretched, flailing like Kate Bush; no-one uses one adjective when seven will do just as well; a singer in her thirties plays a sixteen-year old; there’s a plot twist that that arrives with all the dramatic fluidity of a ten car pile-up and a letter-drop that looked like a disgruntled and recently unemployed Japanese office-drone hurling the contents of his desk at the stage.
My terribly unprofessional attitude to all this was to laugh, to my not inconsiderable shame later on. It all came to whirling conclusion for me at the beginning of the second act during the conversation between The Drunkard and The Whore. I upset most of the audience and almost had to be carried out in an unresponsive laughing seizure when they both fantasised about “running my hands from your long dark HAAAAAAIIIIIIR!” The Drunkard was completely bald and The Whore was a blonde.
In a standard-issue opera plot, the recently orphaned AnalÍa grows up in a convent, has a blast talking to a plaster Madonna and telling stories about hawks whilst letting slip her grip on the lead of the Alsatian named Sanity. Coming of age, she is determined to marry to keep hold of the land her uncle has been stewarding for her. This suits the uncle just fine and he recruits his libertine son Luis to take one for the team so he can keep hold of the estate. Luis charms AnalÍa with some letters and away we go.
Opera is about big emotions, big statements, big characters and big stories. Traditional opera is a beautiful form, but is so weighed down by the weight of years it needs to perfectly executed or rejected in favour of modernity to be effective. If traditional opera is to work it is only by getting really stuck into the big things can it overcome its staginess and artificiality. A perfect opera makes a kind of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the audience in that it begs suspension of disbelief in return for spectacle, bodice-ripping emoting and china-shattering histrionics. Letters of a Love Betrayed demands too much and doesn’t have the firepower to give back. The orchestra and cast can’t get out from under the forgettable score, which only alludes to the story’s location with a few token handclaps. The direction is wooden and dull and the story doesn’t have enough villainy to carry it. Luis looks like he has been recruited from the back of a meat-wagon on Booze Britain and Uncle Eugenio is more of an incidental character from The Archers than a proper hook-nosed Shylock. In sticking so closely to traditional operatic form and eschewing innovation, the show seems to want you to regard it as a ‘proper opera’ by sheer effort and force of will alone. Unfortunately it is far too eccentric to convince.
Reading the programme later on I came across this gem from Isabel Allende, the author of the short story on which the opera is based: “The G-Spot is in the ears. He who looks for it below there is wasting his time.” In an unintentional way, this sums up the whole experience for me. The anatomical G-Spot is like the sweet spot in opera. It may be hard to find and require some hard work and finesse to approach right, but it certainly is worth it.
- Josh Tomalin