Katie Mitchell’s decisive direction almost saves James MacMillan’s ambitious 50-minute opera. The set design and therefore the basic, bold directorial intervention is ingenious. Not ingenious in the sense that it is simply very, very good, but in the sense that it’s made something previously unthinkable work perfectly naturally. The stage is split into three parts- on the left and right frumpy rooms from the 1950s and separating them, in the centre, a less era-bound hospital room with a bed and a dying woman in it.
The amazing device is the fact that the two 50s rooms are two ends of the same room. This is hinted at by the fact that the wind is blowing in seemingly opposite directions through the open windows in each room. A man in one half looks directly into the audience as a woman in the other half also looks out into the audience. They are in fact addressing/facing each other. They even manage to pass an object across the divide. The concept, of course, is entirely rooted in the nature of the relationship and of the story.
From the performance, that is from the singers and the over-poetic speaker, the story is this: somebody is ill in hospital and is either remembering a difficult relationship that she was once in (which is played out on either side of the hospital bed), or she is fabricating a relationship that she was once in. The fabrication could have something to do with her illness or hallucinogenic drugs she’s taking for the pain. The opera fizzles out with no characters being memorable, likeable or intelligible.
I read the synopsis after the opera had finished and it’s a fascinating story: Anna is in the last stages of ovarian cancer and begins to tell the nurse about her extraordinary birth. She was a clone child, the result of a rare case of parthenogenesis. Parthenogenesis is something bizarre that occurs in nature, here asexual reproduction. One night in Hanover in 1944 Anna’s mother was struck down by a bomb, this triggered a dormant cell in her womb and she conceived a child with the same fingerprints as her.
It’s an incredible story, and though the occurrence is unbelievably rare in humans (and never fully proven), there is a scientific basis for it. A good bedrock for an opera, you might say. Sadly not, since 70% of the sung text is totally indistinguishable. This isn’t down to poor diction from the singers, but inconsiderate composing. Amy Freston occasionally unleashed shocking vocal power, and is more of a pleasure to listen to than her co-star Stephan Loges, whose baritone isn’t particularly resonant.
There’s a ton of vivid emotion on display, but emotion that could be brought about by any relationship crisis. To have any hope of getting across the relationship of a woman who has conceived a child without having sex and her husband who is expected to believe that, there must be absolute clarity in the sung text.
There are other questionable aspects to both the vocal lines (such as note spinning and emphasis placed on unimportant words, while more pertinent words are left with just one note per syllable) and the music (almost constant harp glissandi) but on the whole the opera contains a great deal of arresting musical ideas. Just a shame the story doesn’t fertilize the music or vice versa.
- Stephen Crowe