Highs and lows

Judith Weir
Royal Opera House

Judith Weir is one of few composers living today whose several operas have, by and large, been a success with critics and audiences. Her first full-scale opera, the witty A Night at the Chinese Opera, from 1987, remains a favourite for its quick-witted and assured musical style, and clever, dramatically taut storytelling. Blond Eckbert, based on the fable by Ludwig Tieck, was also well received at its premiere at the Coliseum in 1994 and later the same year in Santa Fe. Her latest, Miss Fortune, jointly commissioned by the Royal Opera and the Bregenz Festival, where it premiered (as Achterbahn) on the indoor stage last year, shares with her previous stage works the same lush musical idiom, soaring off in occasional flights of lyrical fancy, and a libretto written in the same matter-of-fact, disarmingly direct style. Its single distinguishing feature, in fact, in addition to its being her first opera for the Royal Opera's main stage, is that it doesn't work.

My first instinct was to blame the production, a visually striking concoction by the Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng and the designer Tom Pye which nonetheless does nothing to help the opera convey its subject matter. The stage is dominated by a strange trapezoid, massive and dark and suggestive in some ways of a ship but in others of a kind of malevolent asteroid. Lit in flashes of green and red, casting vast, layered shadows, it is beautiful in an abstract way, but otherwise it projects an entirely negative energy, dwarfing the singers who throng around and even on top of it. It seems odd that a mere prop could have such a strong gravity, but its strange, alien presence dehumanizes the characters on the stage. Even though the singers' diction is mostly clear, and the orchestral score far from overbearing, one still has no real idea what anyone is talking about and, more importantly, why.

But even when the mysterious trapezoid disappears, hauled off into the surrounding blackness, the absence of human proportion remains, and I realized the fault lay with the work's clumsy and often banal libretto as much as its crude staging. The story, based on a traditional Sicilian folk tale called "Sfortuna" ("misfortune"), follows Tina, the daughter of Lord and Lady Fortune who, when her parents lose their great wealth in a stockmarket crash, decides to make her own way in the world. At first everything she touches turns to ashes, quite literally - a clothing factory burns to the ground during her first night sweeping the floor there, as does the kebab van she is asked to look after - but later she settles down in a launderette, where she attracts a wealthy and handsome young suitor and turns the tables on her destiny.

Such an unlikely fate requires, of course, the presence of Fate itself, here cast as a streetsmart countertenor with a retinue of breakdancers. Fate stalks Tina with monotonous malevolence from the beginning until, in the last scene, for some unknown reason, he changes his tune, providing the one moment of surprise in the entire two hours. Is this a role-reversing slap in the face for Fate, or just the final one in a long series of token gestures? With the kebab van (which descends, impressively but unaccountably, from the flyloft) and the launderette settings, and in its call for a troupe of breakdancers to carry out the destructive whims of Fate, Weir has clearly aimed to bring out the continuing relevance of the story, but its most contemporary feature is in the impassive gaze it attracts from its audience.

The moral seems to be that life has its ups and downs. The only characters with a flash of depth are Hassan the kebab van owner - whose dawn love song to his van is the musical highlight of the opera, beautifully sung by Noah Stewart - and the launderette-owner Donna, admirably sung by Anne-Marie Owens. But even here, the dignity which accrues to these two by virtue of their ownership of their own labour, in contrast to the factory workers, is too frail to rub off on the drama itself.

It is the same with the spectacular and comic aspects of the work. The breakdancing, impressive in itself, seems awkwardly conceived and takes place, almost apologetically, in the shadows. Similarly the comic drama, which might have worked well in a more intimate setting and a neater, more reined-in score, never gains enough charge to coax anything but mild amusement from the audience. This is all the more disappointing given the evident commitment of the singers and players. In the title role, Emma Bell sings with clarity and beauty, while Andrew Watts, as Fate, does amazingly well to project with conviction.

Paul Daniel's musical direction is enthusiastic and competent, but he can do nothing to overcome the music's mostly lacklustre progress. If this were Weir's first opera for the big stage, one might put the work's failure down to inexperience; as it is, Miss Fortune gives the depressing impression that contemporary opera is once more rewarding the fears rather than the hopes of audiences. The present is, in fact, a rather exciting time for new opera both on small and big stages (with George Benjamin's new Written on Skin and a revival of Harrison Birtwistle's Minotaur both booked for the Royal Opera's forthcoming season), so this misfortunate memory may prove short-lived.

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