Review: The Skating Rink (Garsington Opera at Wormsley)

An exotic new mystery thriller is Garsington’s final opera of 2018

Alan Oke as Rookie and Susan Bickley as Carmen in The Skating Rink (Garsington Opera)
Alan Oke as Rookie and Susan Bickley as Carmen in The Skating Rink (Garsington Opera)
© John Snelling

A new opera that grips and entertains at first hearing? Surely some mistake. But no, The Skating Rink is an audience-friendly whodunit with a spiky libretto by Rory Mullarkey and a colourful, Spanish-tinged score by composer David Sawer. Ice or no ice (Garsington's all-weather rink is to skating what Astroturf is to football) it's just the thing for a warm summer night.

So absorbed was I by the story, an unreliable triple narrative that's told, Rashomon-style, from three different perspectives, that I need to hear it again in order to focus on the music. Because, as with Mullarkey's work on Coraline earlier this year, it's the libretto you remember afterwards. Or, more accurately, the strength of the storyline.

Based on Roberto Bolaño's 1993 debut novel, The Skating Rink concerns the murder of a peripheral character by… but that would be telling. Suffice to say that the drama breaks a golden rule of mystery theatre by withholding essential information from the spectator about the killer's personal traits and likely motive. Even so, given the narrow field of suspects there's a good chance you'll guess who it is.

Stewart Laing has directed and designed a stark-looking production that lacks the warmth of Sawer's orchestrations and, crucially, turns the magic-realism of the big reveal (a skating rink inside a mansion) into something bland and municipal.

Garsington's cast, though, is admirable. First in an ensemble of equals is Grant Doyle, a busy singer who couples a gorgeous baritone with the best diction on the circuit. He's trussed in a fat suit as the sleazy Enric who pervs over Nuria, the aspiring figure skater whose funding has been cut. Her role is shared between two engaging artists, the soprano Lauren Zolezzi and the professional skater Alice Poggio. Doyle/Enric is one of the opera's trio of narrators; the others are Ben Edquist as Remo, a businessman, and Sam Furness as Gaspar, a nightwatchman.

Orbiting around this central foursome is a secondary quartet, albeit one that's rich with interest. The conservative mayor, Pilar, is sung with intimidating power dressing and an easy way with jargon ("I'm tasking you with this…") by Louise Winter. The other three are vagrants: Susan Bickley as Carmen, a one-time opera singer who's become a raddled old bag lady, Alan Oke as her devoted admirer, Rookie, and Claire Wild as their young junkie tagalong, Caridad.

Mullarkey's text is spare and mostly sure-footed, with comic touches that vary from the witty (Enric: "I am not a monster, I'm a socialist") to the unfortunate (his insistence on Enric's fatness earns cheap chortles from the audience). A more significant gripe, and an issue that the director ought to have addressed, is the improbable eloquence with which his three down-and-outs enunciate their dialogue.

Will this Rink skate on to greater things? I'm not convinced that Sawer's score has the legs to do so. It's full of nervy, chasing strings and arresting brass figures (Garry Walker and the Garsington Opera Orchestra deliver it all with panache), but they underpin the action like a film score rather than propelling it forward operatically. And he's composed an embarrassing disco sequence that's so tame your granny would join in for a jive. More significantly, the identity of Bolaño's killer is a plot revelation you'll never recapture once you know it, so subsequent hearings will feel a bit like a rerun on ITV3.