Pros: A vibrant and exciting modern classical score, performed by six accomplished singers and one actor with great style and skill.
Cons: The lack of plot and character development means the opera ultimately seems somewhat hollow.
Robert Burton’s textbook The Anatomy of Melancholy, written in 1621, was the first serious discussion of depression. It’s a difficult book to turn into a play; it’s even harder to turn it into an opera. But while librettist and director Finn Beames has drawn many themes from the original, he has adapted and updated it to produce a poetic, loosely woven tapestry that explores the history of melancholy and its treatments.
The central figure, Son, is a countertenor played by John Lattimore, whose high voice is suitably petulant. Unshaven and unkempt in a torn jumper and baggy trousers, he fits his role perfectly – the young man whose depression appeared when he stopped reading books.
His plight is analysed by Grandmother, played with great conviction by the striking Janet Henfrey. It’s the only non-singing part, and it falls to her to read passages from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a study of depression published in 1774. She frequently refers to the books she reads, prompting Son to sing: “They get their knowledge by books, I get mine by melancholizing”.
She begins by delineating the traditional bodily humours – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile – and their counterpart temperaments: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and, of course, melancholy. These are brought to life by the chorus of four singers – two sopranos, a mezzo soprano and a tenor – who echo and comment on Son’s situation.
The causes of depression are updated with references to the sort of dilemmas that confront today’s middle class opera-goers – such as a rickshaw driver’s revelation that he’s homeless, which earns him an extra tenner. But there are also deeper, more endemic issues, and at one point the monarchy is held accountable: “If you are a subject, you are a servant; if you are a servant, you are a slave.”
The “Profather”, a rich bass given full voice by Mark Beesley, updates the science side, appearing at first in the role of a geneticist – the contemporary answer to the four humours – trying to pin down the physical and anatomical causes of depression. He’s frustrated by his inability to produce results: “At this point some would say, pull yourself together.”
The composer, Benjamin Tassie, has produced a fully-scored work in which the music features as the accompaniment to the six vocalists, as the background to the spoken passages, and as the dramatic texture that binds the action together. It’s performed by eight musicians on an eclectic range of instruments, including a bass flute, bass clarinet, celeste, marimba and vibraphone, as well as two violins, a cello and a double bass. At times lyrical, frequently spiky and percussive, it’s a compelling score that’s reminiscent of Alban Berg.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this complex opera, performed to perfection by a highly accomplished cast of singers and musicians. But there’s a sense that the production is at times trying too hard. The live video, filmed by two of the chorus and back-projected onto mobile screens, adds little benefit by enlarging the texture of Son’s torn jumper and providing oblique views of Grandmother. The dozens of terracotta warriors, placed on the stage in the finale, are visually enticing but bear only a tenuous relevance.
The real problem, though, is that there’s no plot, virtually no human interaction, and no character development. Son is as melancholic at the end as he is at the beginning, concluding that the only treatment for melancholy is melancholy itself. This is a magnificent effort, but the whole is rather less than the sum of its parts. Still, go for the music and the singing – but be sure to sit near the centre, or you won’t be able to see the surtitles that are projected too close to the audience to be visible from either end.
Librettist, Director and Co-Designer: Finn Beames
Composer: Benjamin Tassie
Co-designer: Mayou Tikerioti
Conductor: Tim Murray
Booking until: 25th October 2014
Booking Link: http://www.tickettailor.com/checkout/view-event/id/16952/chk/8e83/ref/website_widget