For You (Tour – Oxford)

‘Love, music, loyalty and self-denial’ muse/rage/sob the respective characters in the second-act ensemble of For YouIan McEwan‘s collaboration with Michael Berkeley pretty much does what it says on the tin, centring upon the self-absorbed, promiscuous composer Charles Freith (a Faustus-figure who proclaims that his music ‘outstares the sun’), his invalid wife Antonia and their Polish housekeeper Maria, who is quietly nurturing a homicidal obsession with Charles as she cooks his intimate diners a deux, tidies his boudoir and tacitly witnesses his numerous sexual conquests. The libretto is based on a short story by Stefan Zweig entitled ‘Leporella’, and parallels with Don Giovanni are subtly flagged up throughout, reaching a climax in the final scene of hubris and retribution: ‘I am already in hell’ proclaims this rake, as policewomen (played by the same singers who portrayed his wife and mistress) collude with his nemesis and close in to arrest him for the murder of his sick wife (the work, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the infatuated Maria). The plot also revisits several themes from McEwan’s earlier works, most notably Enduring Love (unrequited erotic obsession) and Atonement(the framing of the love-object for a crime).

Though For You is primarily an ensemble piece, Nicholas Folwell rightly dominates as the anti-hero Charles: his modern-day Giovanni is by turns terrifying, sexy, insecure and ruthless, effortlessly riding the climaxes of Berkeley’s score with the powerful instrument, textual sensitivity and dramatic conviction which have served him so well in Wagner (he recently appeared at Longborough as an acclaimed Alberich, another overreacher who renounces love in favour of wealth and power). His exposition of his amoral artistic credo at the end of the opera was the high point of the evening, as visceral and compelling as it is deliberately grotesque and overblown.

Christopher Lemmings is also excellent as the over-worked, chippily resentful PA Robin: all bitchy asides and camp indignation, he nonetheless crafts a sympathetic three-dimensional character encompassing flashes of grudging loyalty, frustrated ambition and genuine dedication to music. Of the women, Rachel Nicholls gives the strongest performance as Charles’s principal horn and latest fling, fielding some unforgiving vocal lines in her big, bright lyric soprano, gamely stripping to her underwear for the bedroom scene and demonstrating some adroit comic timing (her grandiose delivery of the line ‘I am the horn!’ when caught in flagrante at the close of the first act provoked the biggest laugh I’ve ever heard from an audience at a contemporary opera).

As the obsessive housekeeper Maria, Arlene Rolph received the most enthusiastic reception, both at the curtain call and after her chillingly beautiful act two aria – though from where I was sitting her soft-grained lyric mezzo lacked the lower-register bite which was frequently called for by both Berkeley’s orchestration and McEwan’s text. For the most part her characterisation of thinly-veiled, saccharine psychosis was powerfully realised, though on occasion the wild-eyed stares and bent-kneed servile shuffling were slightly overdone, resulting in unfortunate overtones of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction crossed with Mrs Overall.

The opera is scored for fourteen players and six singers, with hints of blues and ballad infusing the predominantly tonal score. Berkeley’s writing is at its most affecting in the solo and duet passages: Antonia’s love-duets with her would-be lover in the first act and her errant husband in the second are gloriously bitter-sweet, whilst Charles’s two great monologues which flank the opera are almost Wagnerian in their psychological drama. The extended sextets which cap each act are perhaps less successful, self-consciously owing much to Mozart’s great ensembles without achieving the clarity of line and text which characterises their classical models: the stratospheric writing for both sopranos at the close of the first half, for example, obliterates much of what is going on in the other voices parts and in the libretto.

It’s been a bad week for accidents in the opera-house (I came to For You fresh from seeing a wheelchair-bound Rosina at Covent Garden), and this performance was delayed by a mysterious announcement to the effect that one of the singers (Jeremy Huw Williams, playing Antonia’s doctor and admirer Simon) had ‘gone missing’ and that his part would be acted by the director and sung from the side by Nicholls: it says much for the potency of the score at this point that this rather unorthodox arrangement hardly detracted at all from the dramatic tension or lyric beauty of the scene. Williams returned after the interval having taken a fall backstage and sang the second act from the pit, though he sounded shaken and looked to be in considerable pain when he took his curtain call.

– Katherine Cooper