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Photo by English Touring Opera
12 Oct 2010

Promised End — English Touring Opera

In the final scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear, faced with the dreadful sight of the distraught Lear cradling in his arms the body of his dead daughter Cordelia, the Earl of Kent asks: “Is this the promised end?”

Alexander Goehr: Promised End

Lear: Roderick Earle; Goneril: Jacqueline Varsey; Regan: Julia Sporsen; Cordelia: Lisa Markeby; Gloucester: Nigel Robson; Edgar: Adrian Dwyer; Edmund: Nicholas Garrett; Knight/Servant: Jeffrey Stewart; Servant/Captain: Adam Tunnicliffe. Director: James Conway. Conductor: Ryan Wigglesworth. Designer: Adam Wiltshire. Lighting: Guy Hoare. English Touring Opera. The Aurora Orchestra. Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Saturday 9th October 2010.

All photos courtesy of English Touring Opera


His words perhaps recall the aged Lear’s earlier hope that he might one day “Unburdened crawl towards death”. Or, as Edgar interprets, they may evoke the more terrifying image of the Day of Judgement. Whatever they infer, choosing Kent’s words as the title of an opera which — its sub-plots stripped away, its minor (and some major) characters shorn of significance — lasts less 90 minutes but which leaves the audience longing for the eponymous conclusion, is a potentially dangerous move.

It’s not that Alexander Goehr’s new opera has no musical or theatrical merits. Indeed, the first act moves briskly along and, for one unfamiliar with its poetical predecessor, raises a few interesting ideas. But, the second act rapidly loses focus; essentially this ‘personal take’ on Lear has little to say or reveal.

“It’s about old men who get it wrong when they have power and influence — and then get into a mess. That’s the reason I’m doing this opera. […] As an incipient old man myself, that’s what interest me about the story. I mean, I can do Romeo and Juliet now — I’m past that stage.’”

So Goehr declared in a recent interview in The Guardian, explaining his decision to tackle one of Shakespeare’s most complex, profound and disturbing plays, and one which defeated even Verdi and Britten, who abandoned long-held ambitions to compose an opera based on King Lear. Now aged 78, Goehr professes that the impetus to tackle Lear came when, suffering from depression upon retiring (reluctantly) from his Professorship at Cambridge University, he happened to have a dream in which the play was ‘staged as a Japanese Noh play’. The resulting opera mingles Noh stylizations with Elizabethan conceits but the sum of the parts lacks substance and coherence. One is reminded less of the successful cross-cultural integration of Noh practices with the medieval Mystery Plays in Britten’s church parables and rather more of the somewhat laboured device of the Male and Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia. Conway’s production — in which the chorus of principals stand (à la Brecht — another layer of cultural reference) white-faced and stock-still, motionlessly addressing the audience, ritually step through boxes of sand, and indulge in stylized dance movements (for example to accompany the blinding of Gloucester) — taps into the Noh clichés but offers little illumination.


Indeed, the shadow of Britten hangs over this opera in more ways than one. The decision to use Shakespeare’s text verbatim recalls the approach of Britten and Pears when constructing the libretto of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this case, the eminent scholar, the late Frank Kermode, fashioned a libretto which Goehr has arranged in ’24 preludes’. But, while reducing the work to a manageable length — excising several (essential?) aspects of the drama and focusing on the central exchange between Lear and Gloucester — this still leaves the problem of how to find an appropriate melodic idiom for Shakespeare’s poetry. Goehr’s rather spiritless arioso simply does not convey the rich depths and meanings embodied in the sounds and rhythms of the spoken play. Moreover, the composer’s re-ordering of various episodes destroys the narrative coherence and makes it near impossible for anyone lacking knowledge of the original play to follow the psychological development.

The singers and players of English Touring Opera do their best. Lisa Markeby, playing both Cordelia and the Fool — a now familiar theatrical device — is appealing, but she is not given the opportunity to develop and express the full extent of her inner goodness. And, while the expressive focus of the opera is supposedly the meeting of the two foolish old men, Lear and Gloucester, now chastened and wiser as they reflect on their short-comings, the musical fabric fails to convey their supposed transformation. Roderick Earle bellows and blusters as an aggressive Lear, his scenes with Nigel Robson (Gloucester) lacking genuine emotional depth and sincerity. As Edgar, Adrian Dwyer is convincing and impressive. Goneril (Jacqueline Varsey) and Regan (Julia Sporsen) are not musically differentiated and have little dramatic role to play.


Ryan Wigglesworth draws clear lines and textures from his band, the Aurora Orchestra. Goehr does create some interesting colours, not least through his use of the chamber organ and guitar — which evoke fittingly Elizabethan timbres — but the composite impression is one of episodic, unrelated colourings designed to fill the gaps between scenes.

In his programme note, Goehr asks for the audience’s indulgence: “So it remains only for me to say, that you will not be home too late and ask that by your clapping you show some approval for what has been done here.” This seems to me to be a patronising appeal to an audience that may long for a less superficial musical response to a play that interrogates essential questions of human existence.

Promised End is at the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House, London on 11, 14, 16 October and then tours until 26 November. For touring details see

Claire Seymour

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