“A remarkable man…His intelligence was perfectly clear, but his soul was mad.” Tarik O’Regan’s atmospheric representation of Joseph Conrad’s intense and still controversial novel is a “powerful tale [that] explores themes of exploitation and brutality in the oppressive atmosphere of the equatorial rain forest”. Through the intelligent characterisation, and O’Regan’s expressive score, he explores why one would sometimes rather tell - even believe - a lie, than to give voice to an unsavoury truth. In an attempt to produce a “form of psychodrama”, O’Regan’s first opera (he is only 33) is a mature representation of a difficult theme, which is both engaging and disturbing, though never dull. Tarik O’Regan’s opera began life as part of OperaGenesis when it was work-shopped there in 2008. More information on the Genesis Foundation’s website.
The role of Marlow was taken by Alan Oke, whose precision and vocal control enabled him to produce an exciting characterisation of the man who has “played his part in maintaining the secrecies of the horror he finds so abhorrent.” His acting was spot on, so fully immersed was he in the character, that every move and mannerism reflected the internal struggle relayed in the libretto. His tormented decision to lie to the fiancée of the departed Kurtz was particularly moving. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the enjoyable “Rivets” scene was humorous and energetic, and the onstage use of the box of rivets as part of the percussion was an excellent decision.
Kurtz himself, the fever ridden, delirious ivory trader, was played by the remarkable Danish bass Morten Lassenius Kramp. The 39 year old had an arresting stage presence, which he used to great effect during his first solo, the raving “I’m glad”. The tessitura of the aria was focused very low in the voice, but Kramp’s lower register was more than able to cope with the demands of this Profundo role. The part of Kurtz was a remarkable one, scored from E2 to E4, and making full use of the whole two octave range. Kramp was a perfect choice, with a rich sonorous sound from the nadir to the apex of the voice. His very lowest notes, on the phrase “the horror, the horror” at the death of his character, were perfectly audible throughout the Linbury Studio. Kramp is definitely someone to watch in the future.
The interchange between Oke and Kramp was impressively enacted, with the Tenor and Bass performing at either end of the vocal spectrum, and there was a lovely chorus for all the male characters performed a cappella, which was beautifully scored. Tenor Jaewoo Kim portrayed the Harlequin with an energetic mix of the humorous and the sinister, leaping about the crates as he spoke to Marlow. As he told Marlow of Kurtz’s greatness, the scoring suddenly moved from dissonance to consonance: a startling musical device which gave extra force to the Harlequin’s words.
Soprano Gweneth-Ann Jeffers took the dual role of Kurtz’s Belgian fiancée and the African “River Woman”. The touching naivety with which she portrayed Kurtz’s fiancée was contrasted with the raw, often ethereal quality she exuded as the “River Woman”. In this role, her wordless melismas, taking her the full length of the range, were beautifully executed, with her pianissimo notes above the stave particularly haunting. The astral effect was enhanced by the projection of watery patterns onto the wall behind her, and the fluidic, rippling accompaniment, with the tubular bells and the celesta being particularly mesmeric.
The music itself was perfectly conceived for the theme of the opera. The percussion and harp were used to good effect to build atmosphere and tension, and there was a wonderful passage scored for lower strings. The two violins were using harmonics which added to the tension and suspense, though this device was used sparingly to avoid it becoming too invasive. I liked the interesting use of the bass guitar at the end of the opera, where guitarist Stewart French banged it into his legs whilst turning the speaker up to full volume, creating an unnerving, uncomfortable sound.
As for the production, the staging was excellent. The rigging and decking, which remained throughout the opera, was visually both evocative and unobtrusive, while the onstage costume changes and moving of scenery were effected professionally. The lighting was excellent, both the electric and the flaming torches and candle. But the most interesting thing was the slowly rising water level. By the time the opera was finished, the decking was saturated with water, just as Kurtz’s fever had risen to its inevitable, deadly conclusion.