Preludes to an unclothing

Alexander Goehr
Promised End
English Touring Opera

Reviewed in the TLS, 29 October 2010

Strong testimony to the pitfalls and paradoxes of self-knowledge comes from the fact that two of the words we use to refer to what is most individual about us – our “personality” and “character” – originally refer to what is by definition least individual. The value of a character, in its primary sense of an inscribed mark or, later, a bit of metal type, is that it is a replica, and immediately identifiable as such. Similarly, the function of the persona – the mask worn by actors in the theatre of the ancient world – was to obscure the individuality of the actor in favour of the universality of the character represented. Even in ordinary usage, a “persona” is something that someone constructs and projects, while a character is something we “show”.

In drama, we infer a self from its persona, rather than the other way round. This is perhaps why the interactions we witness in the theatre – despite its institutional commitment to dissimulation – often contain more truth and reality than those we experience in our everyday lives. In this respect, Shakespeare’s King Lear is less unusual in its focus than in its intensity when it concentrates our attention on the relation between the clothing of the self and its “inner being” or essence. When Lear strips himself and his character bare on the heath during “Is man no more than this? . . .”, he is doing so in imitation of Poor Tom’s representation of, as Lear puts it, “the thing itself: / unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, / forked animal as thou are. Off off you lendings! / come unbutton here.” The fact that the audience knows Tom’s nakedness is merely Edgar’s disguise is important, but it detracts neither from Lear’s intention nor the transformative effect of the experience he undergoes.

Perhaps surprisingly, Alexander Goehr is the first British composer to make King Lear into an opera. But had he been the tenth, I suspect his approach would still be unique: he has compressed Shakespeare’s sprawling tragedy into a work of a hundred-odd minutes. Composed of twenty-four “preludes”, or short musico-dramatic numbers, the opera uses a small chamber orchestra, in rather folksy combinations (with two tubas, extra trumpets, a guitar and small pipe organ), and a cast of nine, most of whom are on stage continuously as part of a Graeco-Brechtian chorus. The pace is markedly high, exerting considerably strain on the narrative flow so that each scene almost becomes a small performance-piece in itself – a feature that is reinforced by the picturesque, mildly ironic musical settings, the focus of which is the modification and throwing- into-relief of the characterizations.

Like his former colleagues in the “Manchester School”, Goehr long ago made the journey from young firebrand to establishment figure. Yet unlike either Harrison Birtwistle or Peter Maxwell-Davies, Goehr’s reputation was for many years strongly tied to his academic appointments, first at Southampton and Leeds, and then for fifteen years at Cambridge. It remains an open question whether his greatest musical legacy will prove to be his own body of work or that of his former students, the list of which reads like a who’s who for two successive generations of British composers – Robin Holloway, Bayan Northcott, George Benjamin, Julian Anderson and Thomas Adès – and it is perhaps not surprising that Goehr has suffered, since having to retire from Cambridge in 1999, from the feeling that his world had evaporated. He has also let it be known that his ability to compose was affected by his retirement and that the Lear project was to be his rehabilitation. Furthermore, in suggesting that the opera – which is called Promised End, after Kent’s response to Cordelia’s death – will be his last, and that he identifies with its protagonist, Goehr has turned what was always going to be a difficult project into an intensely personal one.

This personal turn, I feel, is something of a shame, not merely because it mixes up the composer’s fears and foibles with those of his subject, but because the opera’s great strength consists in its being so very impersonal. That is to say, Goehr draws on the representational rather than the expressive strengths of musical drama, as well as on the traditions of Noh and ancient Greek theatre, to produce a work that places persona well to the fore of personality, so to speak. This is not an opera about the grand old man of British music called Goehr any more than it is really an opera about a vain, failing ruler called Lear. Rather it is an opera about the play King Lear, in which some of theatre’s most powerful and persistent themes and characters are absorbed into a world of appropriate symbol and ritual.

For some, this will mark the work out as a self-referential indulgence, sacrificing dramatic credibility for artistic sophistication. But this is to mistake the nature of the work, just as it is to misunderstand the nature of opera itself, which has always invited and required precisely such ritualized elements, whether we are aware of it or not. In his approach to Lear, which does justice to the play’s own concern with masks, characters and personae, Goehr is simply taking the Shakespearean process a little further.

What this does mean, however, is that the opera is not an easy one to follow. Although the entire libretto is taken from the original text, the filleting performed by Goehr’s former Cambridge colleague Frank Kermode, the order of action is altered, often substantially so. It opens with Kent’s humiliation of Oswald (“you base football player”) from Act Two, although neither Kent nor Oswald are in fact named characters in the opera, and ends with an echo of the Fool’s pledge to “speak a prophecy ere I go”. The transplanted opening works well, placing Lear’s tragic journey to self-knowledge centre-stage at the start. “Doth any here know me . . . Doth Lear walk thus?”: the questioning is set to a series of faltering melodic phrases which nonetheless rise as they accumulate. The character of the Fool is also merged with that of Cordelia, which may seem confusing but in fact makes good sense of Lear’s own confusion at the end of the play, when he bears Cordelia’s corpse but seems instead to mourn his Fool. It also allows Goehr to merge the musical characterization of both the Fool and Cordelia in quasi-naïve nursery-rhyme diction which undercuts the intensity of much of the other vocal writing.

All of this chopping and changing, when combined with the pace at which the narrative unfolds, is bound to cause a certain amount of confusion – on a first hearing, and possibly on subsequent ones. But is this confusion of the constructive or unconstructive variety? Is the experience of confusion on the part of the audience itself a part of the meaning of the opera? I think so. Temporary bewilderment, after all, is an excellent device when it comes to realigning our relationship with familiar, canonic texts, and it must also be admitted that one of the strengths of the original play is its profound mistiness. As the critic Marvin Rosenberg put it in The Masks of King Lear (1993), “Nothing is sure in [Lear’s] world, not bonds, power, cunning, wisdom, service, disguise, gold, the gods, men, animals – if they are a different thing; not family, friends, nothing on this side of the grave – and there may be no other”.

Whatever the outcome of this debate, it is to the credit of James Conway’s staging for English Touring Opera, with designs by Adam Wiltshire and lighting by Guy Hoare which give great depth to the Linbury stage, that Promised End’s first production strives at all times for clarity. Reflecting Goehr’s preoccupation with the mythic aspect of the characters, the singers’ faces are masked with thick white make-up and their movements stylized. The clothing and unclothing of the characters is always meaningful, as is the expansion of that meaning into the symbols and attributes through which the characters’ interaction and fluctuating power relationships are expressed. Given that no one really goes off-stage – the resting singers form part of a chorus whose visibility comes and goes along with a set of semi-transluscent screens – any dramatic entrance requires an auxiliary signal, here provided by characters stepping in and out of a tray of sand before singing. The tray itself mirrors the platform that serves both for Lear’s throne and, with the lid removed, the hovel. The ritual with the sand tray echoes cleansing rituals as well as the overall process of the drama, in which Lear comes to be baptised, as it were, in his existential confusion. But the main reason for the success of Conway’s staging lies in its sensitivity to Goehr’s score. Just as the ritual with the sand tray echoes the stylistic and formal divisions between each of the twenty-four preludes, so too the characteristic and rhetorical devices deployed in the music are observed by the stage movement, which varies from primitive dance passages to the awkward stumbling of the blinded Gloucester and dispossessed Edgar.

There are times, for example in the battle scene (which is fought with antlers), when the murky brass timbres and bulbous rhythmic profile are employed by Goehr primarily for atmospheric effect, evocative of a kind of medieval darkness in which the proximity of violence to power is exhilaratingly palpable. But Goehr’s devices are never simply colouristic, and most are explicitly and audibly artful: the Fool’s guitar accompaniment lends her strains a balladic aspect, which is both appropriate in itself and also effective in isolating the character from the world of sound and sense occupied by her interlocutors, while the chorus passages are strung together like snatched madrigals. Overall, despite moments of intensity and angst reminiscent of Schoenberg, the forebear most evidently suggested by the quirky instrumentation and restless contrasts is Hindemith.

Goehr’s score is given powerful advocacy by the Aurora Orchestra, heavily pared down for the occasion and conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth with his usual understanding of texture and pacing. Roderick Earle’s Lear is vocally assured, while the three daughters are all excellent, the contrasts between Lina Markeby as Cordelia and Jacqueline Varsey and Julia Sporsén as Goneril and Regan never clearer than when the youngest daughter is at her most plain and the older “pelicans” at their most seductively operatic.

There is no doubt that Promised End does justice to Alexander Goehr’s long-standing interest in Shakespeare. The vocal lines neither obscure nor hide themselves behind the verse, just as the music captures the underlying menace and strangeness of the play. The restrained, half-Brechtian, half-Beckettian setting may be precisely what is called for in turning the play into an opera. After all, Verdi’s disappointment at never producing a Lear opera has often been echoed, but the process of clarifying and intensifying the drama which is undergone, say, in Verdi and Boito’s adaptation of Othello, is not what is needed in the case of Lear – too much clarity and the essence of the drama becomes forefeit. But if Goehr has called it right when it comes to Lear, I hope he has called it wrong when it comes to this being his last opera. And if, as I suspect may be the case, this exemplary collaboration with English Touring Opera was also partly intended as a calling card for the country’s main opera houses, then I hope it will result in an invitation.

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