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Performances

<em>The Skating Rink</em>, Garsington Opera
06 Jul 2018

The Skating Rink: Garsington Opera premiere

Having premiered Roxanna Panufnik’s opera Silver Birch in 2017 as part of its work with local community groups, Garsington Opera’s 2018 season included its first commission for the main opera season. David Sawer's The Skating Rink premiered at Garsington Opera this week; the opera is based on the novel by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano with a libretto by playwright Rory Mullarkey.

The Skating Rink, Garsington Opera

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Alice Poggio (Nuria skater)

Photo credit: John Snelling

 

This is Sawer's third opera. His first, From Morning Till Midnight , to his own libretto based on a Georg Kaiser play, was premiered with some success by English National Opera in 2001, though his second opera, in fact an operetta, Skin Deep with a libretto by Amando Iannucci, perhaps failed to quite find its mark when premiered by Opera North in 2009. This new piece, The Skating Rink, seems something of a return to the darker, expressionist world of From Morning Till Midnight, though not without lighter moments.

Bolano's novel tells the same events from the points of view of three narrators, each of whom is involved in a different way in the events in a 1990s Spanish town on the Costa Brava, where love leads Enric (Grant Doyle) to build an illicit ice skating rink so that Nuria (Lauren Zolezzi and Alice Poggio) can train, but the murder of a former opera singer Carmen (Susan Bickley), now living on the streets, clouds issues.

Rather daringly, Sawer and Mullarkey take this structure into the opera: each of the three acts tells the same events from a different point of view. First, that of Gaspar (Sam Furness) the night watchman at a holiday camp, tasked with evicting Carmen and Caridad (Claire Wild) and in love with the latter, who eventually discovers the illicit rink. Then, Remo (Ben Edquist), Gaspar's boss, who is in love with Nuria and thinks that he has a relationship with her. And, finally, Enric (Grant Doyle), the fat and unlovely head of the town's social services whose obsession with Nuria leads him to build the rink for her. Each act advances the plot slightly: the first ends with the discovery of the rink, the second with the discovery of Carmen's body, and the third with the arrest of Enric. Then, in a Coda, we find out who really did the murder.

The result is rather multi-layered, the characters are unwrapped rather akin to a Baroque opera, in that we first see Enric through the eyes of Gaspar and Remo before we hear his point of view. Key moments are enacted three times, notably the eviction of Carmen and Caridad, but each time in a different context. Also, rather daringly, each of the narrators actually addresses the audience: Sawer and Mullarkey stop time and allow the narrators to address us and explain themselves. This means that some of the action is described rather than experienced. Again, this creates a complex multi-layering, the sort of remove from filmic naturalism which is essential when creating an opera and this new piece is thankfully anything but a sung play.

Ben Edquist (Remo), Lauren Zolezzi (Nuria) credit Johan Persson.jpg Ben Edquist (Remo), Lauren Zolezzi (Nuria). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

David Sawer is noted for the drama of his orchestral works, and he uses the orchestra in The Skating Rink to create, colour and animate the atmosphere. The orchestra becomes another protagonist and whilst Sawer's harmonic language might be complex and sometimes challenging, his textures and ear for timbres made the music often seductive and accessible. This is a highly coloured score, which reflects the subject matter, and Sawer weaves into it popular references, yet never directly. Having the opera singer Carmen entertaining in a cafe created a magical scene at the end of Act Two, and Act Three included a disco which managed to mix drama with a popular beat, not to mention actor Steven Beard doing a wonderful karaoke number! And, the use of a brass-band (off-stage and walking on), created some wonderfully Ivesian counterpoints.

It helped that Sawer and Mullarkey had created some strongly characterised, not to say meaty roles so that Garsington Opera's cast of singing actors had something to get their teeth into. Whilst this is not an opera that you will come out of singing the tunes, Sawer's vocal lines, though sometimes complex, were dramatic, enlivening and expressive; he never noodled. For the passages where the narrators addressed the audience directly, Sawer chose a simpler, plainer style, a more neutral type of discourse which threatened sometimes to lack dramatic interest.

Stewart Laing's production did not aim to give us naturalism. We never saw the Palacio Benvingut where the skating rink was built; instead, we had to rely on the descriptions from the characters. The basic set was a space with a backdrop of a plastic curtain, which evoked those found in caravans of the period, and the stage littered with packing cases. A mobile box structure became Gaspar's office, Remo's home and Enric's office, moving about as necessary. Other elements, such as tables and chairs were brought on, and the front of the stage had a boardwalk. Yet, throughout the first act we asked ourselves, where was the skating rink? In fact, it was there all the time, the floor of the stage was covered with a special material which enabled Alice Poggio to skate on it. (One of the male actors also skated, providing a dream image of Enric as he imagines skating on the ice.) Where necessary, the cast brilliantly evoked the trickiness of walking on ice with unsuitable footwear.

Alan Oke (Rookie), Susan Bickley (Carmen) credit John Snelling.jpg Alan Oke (Rookie), Susan Bickley (Carmen). Photo credit: John Snelling.

This was very much an ensemble production. Characters emerged and then retreated, and each singer gave a committed, engaged and engaging performance. Sam Furness was wonderfully passionate as the young Gaspar, whose obsession with Carmen's companion Caridad (Claire Wild) sets the plot in motion. Furness produced a fine stream of firm tone and strong emotion. This was a thrillingly committed performance. As Remo, Ben Edquist (making his UK debut) was cooler and emphasised the character's lack of self-reflection. Rather sex-obsessed, he never understands his relationship with Nuria (the tantalising Lauren Zolezzi), and is puzzled when she evaporates. Edquist has the work's final words, slightly enigmatic and wonderfully evoking the character's puzzlement at life. As the final narrator, Enric, Grant Doyle was particularly impressive having taken on the role at relatively short notice to replace an ailing Neal Davies. At first, we see Enric through others' eyes, fat, unlovely and rather nasty, and only in the last act do we find the passion and obsession underneath. Doyle gave a beautifully crafted, multi-layered performance which really brought the character alive and, surprisingly, made us begin to sympathise with him.

The limitations of Sawer and Mullarkey's approach was the other characters were slightly less well drawn. There was no authorial voice and this meant that we never heard things from Carmen, Caridad or Nuria's point of view.

Susan Bickley was superb as Carmen, fierce, troubled and rather crazed, yet complex, and revealing elements of the person she used to be in moments like her singing in the cafe, and her blackmailing of Enric (having discovered the skating rink, built with embezzled council money). Claire Wild was evocative as the troubled Caridad, whom we only saw her through Gaspar's eyes. Lauren Zolezzi really brought out the mystery and sense of contained distance in Nuria's character, as we see her through both Remo's eyes and those of Enric. And, she was allowed to develop most, as we learned more about her in the coda. The movement between Zolezzi as singing Nuria and Alice Poggio as skating Nuria was beautifully done, and the result was a very real character.

Louise Winter (Pilar), Grant Doyle (Enric) credit Johan Persson.jpg Louise Winter (Pilar), Grant Doyle (Enric). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

The role of Pilar the town's mayor might have been relatively small, but Louise Winter really made it count. Alan Oke was Carmen's would-be lover Rookie. Also living on the streets, the two have a love-hate relationship with a wonderful shouting match which concluded Act Two. Rather underused in the three main Acts, Oke created Rookie's character using a breathy form of sprechstimme, which blossomed in his final solo in the coda which revealed the truth of the murder in thrilling fashion.

Under Garry Walker's expert guidance, the orchestra drew a wide range of colours and textures from Sawer's score, giving as thrilling and committed performance as the singers on stage and making the piece really count.

Sawer and Mullarkey have created a new opera with a striking voice, one which managed to draw an enthusiastic response from a very engaged audience, without ever seeming to talk down and with music which was of admirable complexity and sophistication. The drama was handled in a confident fashion which really made you want to know what was going to happen. The whole received a strong performance from both cast and orchestra, and it is being recorded by the BBC for broadcast later this year on BBC Radio 3.

Robert Hugill

David Sawer & Rory Mullarkey: The Skating Rink

Ramo - Ben Edquist, Gaspar - Sam Furness, Enric - Grant Doyle, Carmen - Susan Bickley, Caridad - Claire Wild, Rookie - Alan Oke, Nuria - Lauren Zolezzi, Pilar - Louise Winter, Nuria (skater) - Alice Poggio; Director & design - Stewart Lang, Conductor - Garry Walker.

Garsington Opera, Worsley; Thursday 5th July 2018.

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