|Lauren Zolezzi as Nuria, Grant Doyle as Enric|
Photo: Julian Guidera
I've been twice to see The Skating Rink at Garsington, the new opera they have commissioned from composer David Sawer and librettist Rory Mullarkey. Reviewing it is not my plan, as I'm a bit close to the place since Silver Birch last year and have some more projects in the pipeline, including a new piece for the Youth Company with composer Paul Fincham for 2019. I can say, though, that I found it enormously impressive, often very beautiful - the skating music and the snowy conclusion in particular - and, on balance, touching and engaging, more so than certain other highly-lauded recent operas I could mention. I hope it will have a long and happy life in the opera houses of many companies and countries hereafter.
If there's a problem, though, it's the narrative style and I suspect that might account for some of the reviews that found it a bit, er, icy. The opera is based on a novel by Roberto Bolano, set on the Costa Brava, in which the same story - the murder of an unfortunate down-and-out singer, Carmen - is told through the different eyes of several implicitly unreliable narrators. As it unfolds, we build up a picture of the hierarchies involved and the way that love, supposedly a private matter, can impact upon the fates of others. "Love is a rebel bird," says Carmen - well, she would, wouldn't she? The clinching image at the conclusion shows us what the ice rink really is: a better world, away from all that squalor and distress, where perhaps we could all be our happiest and best selves.
Yet preserving the novel's approach creates a special set of problems. First of all, each narrator tells his story in the past tense, while it is being acted in front of us. So, when the body of Susan Bickley as Carmen is lying on stage in a "thick black sea" of blood, our narrator tells us: "It was the singer". He could have run to her, tried to wake her, described how he feels - the shock, the pity, the terror - but no. He just tells us who it was, but we already know because we can see her. You get my drift.
Meanwhile, characters with whom we've engaged early on - Gaspar, the drifting would-be poet (Sam Furness, on splendiferous form) and his passion for the unfortunate addict Caridad (equally splendid Claire Wild), begin at the centre of our world and fade to the edges; Remo Moran (excellent Ben Edquist) gives his viewpoint, yet is never quite sympathetic or rounded out; and our real hero, Enric, does not emerge until the second half.
I'm concerned about this first of all because I'm not sure how you'd get around any of this when fashioning a piece out of a story told in that structure, but also because my Bach show for Townsville (on 1 August) is basically narrated as a flashback so that I don't have to convince anyone that I'm 20 at the beginning. On the other hand, nobody gets murdered (even though I have my doubts about Bach's quackish eye surgeon, John Taylor of London...). One wants it to be convincing, but how much does the past tense interfere when your audience is living the drama in the present? We'll see.
The opera's finest moments are when the narration has stopped and the action enters both real time and inner worlds. Enric's dream of skating, with an ungainly double in the same brown suit and pink shirt sliding about on the rink to the manner born, is sweet and touching; the party scene in which the mayor, Pilar (an imperious Louise Winter) rumbles Enric's embezzlement of funds for the rink while they dance raises the temperature in a valuable way.
The performance is absolutely top-notch, with wonderful contributions from the whole cast: Susan Bickley is outstanding as singer-turned-down-and-out Carmen, Alan Oke (come on, chaps, this guy should have national treasure status!) as her whispering, drawling, howling lover, Rookie, and Grant Doyle as Enric, the plump official whose life - and occasionally figure - is turned upside-down by his love for the Olympic skater Nuria Mari (a convincing joint performance by Alice Poggio as the skating Nuria and Lauren Zolezzi as the singing one). Garry Walker conducts an orchestra stuffed with interesting sounds including a Chilean charango, soprano saxophone and euphonium, plus an off-stage marching band.
But for me, the most touching thing of all was to see, among the onstage silent extras - a chorus that never sings - several very familiar faces from Silver Birch. David, who was the Warden at the beginning and walked the dog in the army desert scene (hey, Skating Rink company, didn't you find a role for Sam's Labrador, Poppy?); Bev, who came into our production among our hard-won military recruits; and Sheila, who had fallen on hard times, had never imagined she'd set foot on a stage and found that being part of the adult community chorus helped her turn her life around. How wonderful that they are back for more!
Some tickets remain for the final two performances - do go if you can. It's beautiful and haunting.