This was the world premiere of Eleanor Alberga’s chamber opera Letters of a Love Betrayed, based on a short story by Isabel Allende. I was continually reminded throughout the performance of the idiom of Benjamin Britten, yet this work seems to lack the psychological penetration of, say, The Turn of the Screw, as well as the surging motion that drives that masterpiece to its shattering conclusion.
Alberga’s score is rich and colourful, brimming with sliding violins, piping woodwind (especially the flute) and the mysterious rustlings of tuned percussion. The tiny orchestra produces varied landscapes of sound, and all that is lost, as is to be expected, is the depth and richness of sound that a larger orchestra would provide, and that only troubles during the penetrating climactic passages.
The score is most notable for its tense, fragmentary nature: melodic ideas flit ceaselessly around the orchestral pit, and the effect is of understated instrumental virtuosity. The problem was that this style of writing lost from the score, and hence from the drama, a sense of forward movement. Musical hints, suggestions and brief ejaculations weave an entrancing web of sound, yet there are not really any lengthily breathed lines, any structural arches that might help to sustain dramatic tension. When a more sustained melodic line turns up – unexpectedly – in the music, one feels immediately an incongruity. The change of idiom, the stylistic swerve, arrives like an unwelcome relative.
This is not to say that the music is not evocative, because it is. But what is it evoking? “The earth,” says the programme note, but that sounds like a rather loose claim – Wagner can evoke the river Rhine by introducing undulations in the music that reflect the undulations of the water – but what does soil sound like? Ignoring this idea, I attempted, during the performance, to work out whether or not the music was penetrating the characters, whether it was scrutinising anyone psychologically. I was not convinced that it was, rather that it solely provided a very beautiful “atmospheric” horizon to the narrative.
Other listeners with better ears than mine may well disagree. Ultimately, indeed, I found the score efficient and evocative – often thrilling – but it has very quickly rushed from my mind, and now I struggle to recapture precisely what I heard.
No blame can be aimed, I think, at Mary Plazas, who took the opera’s central role – the character of Analia. Plazas is a diminutive woman, but it is exciting to hear such a dramatic soprano sound burst from such a tiny body. Plazas’ mad scene, especially, was thrilling to behold. The rest of the cast was admirable, also. I especially enjoyed the performance of tenor Christopher Steele, who took the role of Luis – his voice is rich, and his top notes, even when they teetered on the brink of his range, excited me.
The production, too, is simple and effective (as it has to be in the Linbury, really). The lighting works well in suggesting both a physical space and an emotional state, and the singers have been well directed by Michael McCarthy, with a concentration on character interaction.
One problem with this work is the lack of any sustained periods of emotional or psychological intensity. The first act contains a lot of monologue and dialogue, and tends to drag; the second act opens with an exciting scene in a bar, but the mood during this performance was lost during an awkward and bizarrely prolonged scene change, and never quite regained. The entire things needs to be tightened up, screwed together more firmly, and then the work’s exciting stretches could become a rule, and not an exception.
- Dave Paxton