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Joseph Conrad
04 Nov 2011

Heart of Darkness, Royal Opera

There are some literary texts which, by dint of their intense compression of incident, their creators’ firm control of structure, and the precision of linguistic nuance, do not naturally seem to lend themselves to operatic treatment.

Tarik O’Regan: Heart of Darkness

Marlow: Alan Oke; Kurtz: Morten Lassenius Kramp; Woman of the River/Fiancée: Gwenneth-Ann Jeffers; Harlequin: Jaewoo Kim; Doctor/Boilermaker: Donald Maxwell; Director of the Thames Boat: Njabulo Madlala; Manager/Secretary: Sipho Fubesi; Chief Accountant/Helmsman: Paul Hopwood. Conductor: Oliver Gooch.Chroma Ensemble. Opera East Productions. Director: Edward Dick. Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins. Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher. Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London, Tuesday, 1st November 2011.

Above: Joseph Conrad


The Turn of the Screw and Heart of Darkness might seem to belong in this category; but, as Britten so supremely demonstrated in the case of Henry James’ novella, and Tarik O’Regan has skilfully shown in this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s tale of exploration, obsession and morality, we would be wrong to make such assumptions. Indeed, Conrad himself described the novella in musical terms in his 1917 Preface: “… like another art altogether. That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.”

Echoes of Britten loom large in Tarek’s new opera, performed in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House by Opera East, directed inventively by Edward Dick. The (almost) exclusively male cast, the ship-bound setting, the exposure of dark, compelling psychological forces, the exploration of guilt and silence, all recall Britten’s Billy Budd. Marlow’s soul-searching self-interrogation parallels the moral dilemmas and regret of Captain Vere. Similarly, O’Regan’s musical means — a fluent melodic idiom which serves the text effectively and expressively, an eclectic chamber instrumentation, the musical articulation and intimation of mysteries and the ‘unknown’ — are reminiscent of Britten’s style and techniques.

Drawing the economical but resonant text exclusively from Conrad’s own words (both the novella and his diaries), librettist Tom Phillips has retained the original device of relating events through a ‘frame’, as Marlow reveals his history to his fellow seafarers as they wait aboard ship for a mist to clear from the Thames and allow them to continue their homeward journey. But, Phillips has also provided a second ‘frame’ to envelope the first, in which Marlow visit’s Kurtz’s European fiancée, the opening brief fragment remaining obscure until the meaning of Marlow’s mysterious encounter is revealed at the close.

Robert Innes Hopkins’ stage designs and Rick Fisher’s lighting skilfully allow for slick, convincing shift between times and locations, the Thames estuary and the Central African interior. The predominantly darkened set is occasionally illuminated or washed by a disturbing glow, as when, for example, a luminous miasma hovers eerily and ominously above the stage. The water-borne platform of the ship’s deck rolls and lurches to the lapping rhythms of the river.

As was the case with The Turn of the Screw, O’Regan and Phillips have had both to distil and clarify some of the ambiguities of the literary text, to achieve a coherent form suited for dramatic presentation, and to create space for musical presentation and expansion of the rich inferences of the original.

O’Regan’s varied and atmospheric orchestration certainly achieves the latter. Avoiding clichés but making use of some sufficiently familiar melodical and timbral associations, the composer has skilfully evoked place and ambience with precision and impact. Harp, celeste, guitar and energetic percussion underscore the heat and mystery of the Congolese jungle. In contrast, the arrival of the long-awaited “rivets” which will enable Marlow and his shipmates to continue their journey to the heart of the interior heralds a riotous dance of glee, a momentary alleviation of the oppressive spirit of anxiety and danger which overshadows their passage.

The-cast-of-Heart-of-Darkne.gifThe cast of The Heart of Darkness [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of the Royal Opera House]

The handling of form and pace is superb. Marlow’s journey is swift but the composer allows for moments of repose and reflection, effortlessly and almost imperceptibly altering tempo and metre, register and colour. The complicated score was impressively conducted by Oliver Gooch, who was in full command of the musico-dramatic structure of the work, and alert to the emotional ‘weight’ of significant moments. Gooch was superbly served by the instrumentalists of Chroma, whose accuracy, energy and mastery of various idioms, and sensitivity to the singers and the text, was exemplary.

As Marlow, tenor Alan Oke had the lion’s share of the work, and gave a powerful, moving performance. His diction was clear and eloquent, and he employed contrasting tones to convey the ambivalence of his action and his own moral evaluation of them. Oke was supported by a fine cast. Bass Donald Maxwell was a suspicious-looking Doctor, and a buoyant, lively Boilermaker; Jaewoo Kim’s Harlequin was athletic and intriguing, both physically and orally. A committed performance by Danish bass Morten Lassenius Kramp depicted the full horror and despair of Kurtz’s disintegration. The soaring, wordless vocalisation of Gwenneth-Ann Jeffers, as the River Woman who mournfully laments Kurtz’s passing, provided a welcome timbral counterpart to the lower registers of the male voices, and conjured an ambience of suffering, extremity and the limits of human endurance.

The opera builds to a powerful climactic scene: Kurtz’s death — inarticulate, raving, disillusioned — brings Marlow to the realisation that, “His intelligence was perfectly clear, but his soul was mad”. Here, the vocal expressiveness of O’Regan’s melodic line was expertly utilised by Oke to reveal Marlow’s painful recognition of human failing.

A final frame reveals the significance and meaning of the opening ‘frame’: Marlow is unable to reveal the truth of Kurtz’s ultimate horrific vision to the latter’s fiancée — it is simply “too dark”. This chilling scene is followed by what is perhaps the opera’s only structural weakness; for Marlow commences a short ‘explanation’, offered to his crew and to the audience, of the role played by the exploiting colonialists in Kurtz’s tragedy, explication which adds a slightly distracting ‘footnote’ (highlighting the colonial theme of the original) to what has up until that point been a single-focused “musical psychodrama”, as the creators themselves describe the work.

But that is a minor observation. This is a thrilling new work, in a brilliantly realised production. I hope I get the opportunity to see it again soon.

Claire Seymour

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