18 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 37


Un re in ascolto (Covent Garden)

Communication chords

Rodney Milnes

Yes, yes, but what's it about?' seems to have been a widespread reaction to the British premiere of Berio's opera both in the foyer and to a certain extent in the press. A more pertinent question might be `what isn't it about?' This is one of those operas, like the best of Tippett, that takes on everything about the not altogether enviable business of existence on this nasty little bit of muck whirling about in infinity to so little discernible purpose. It's about death, individual and collective, the death of our culture; about betrayal, both per- sonal and artistic; about failure in every sphere of human activity, personal, politic- al, professional; about revolution, the ulti- mate, Janus-like failure; about opera itself. It muses upon these and many other bracingly cheerful matters via two metaphors: non-communication, the beset- ting stupidity of this more than any other age, as the title suggests (A King in the Act of Listening is a rough translation), with the line `to hear and to listen are not the same thing' standing as a motto for Italo Calvino's masterly, highly elusive and allu- sive libretto; and of course the metaphor of the theatre. The King in question is an impresario non-communicatively mounting a musical version of The Tempest another Shakespeare play that has gripped this century's imagination.

I know this doesn't sound the sort of stuff to set gentle readers besieging the box office, but there are at least two reasons why it should. The music, obviously, which is of quite extraordinary beauty and fas- cination. Betio seems to have deliberately put his own involvement in the avant-garde movement of the 1950s into an historico- operatic context; there are episodes of the aural chaos that was one answer on the part of artists to the inhuman upheavals of the first part of the century, but many more that explore with profit the roots of opera- tic experience, from Monteverdi, to Verdi himself, to Berg, all saluted in expansive vocal lines and ever-intriguing textures and sonorities. The music is above all glorious- ly Italian, with all that that implies lyrical, direct, singable. If, in a post- Puccini age, we have been waiting for the Mediterranean Muse to reassert her domi- nance in opera, then here she is, and not before time.

Then there are Graham Vick's produc- tion and Chris Dyer's decor, magically lit by Nick Chelton. The theatrical metaphor is caught with virtuoso brilliance and sly humour, the pandemonium of the un- directed rehearsal of the Tempest musical directed to the hilt by Vick and full of scintillatingly witty effects — the levitating chorus, the lady sawn in half, foxtrotting fish, trapeze artists, three rather peculiar sailors. Yet the bustle is kept under firm control: when it is essential that we should be allowed to listen to music and to singing, the phantasmagoria tactfully evanesces and the focus is held tightly on the singers themselves.

And the cast responds wholeheartedly, with exceptionally beautiful singing from Elizabeth Laurence as one of the audition- ers for the leading female role (in both life and the musical), from Penelope Walmsley-Clark and Rebecca Littig as two others, and a pitiless, powerfully projected performance of the successful (or rejected -- the piece is full of mirror-images) applicant from Kathryn Harris, after whose magisterial dressing-down the un- fortunate impresario is left to die alone in his empty, imaginary theatre. In this last role Donald McIntyre gives, I think, the performance of his career.

One nagging doubt. `I wish this theatre could contain listening in all its forms', sings impresario-Prospero. How ironic, then, than an opera about non- communication should have been sung in Italian, and that the burden of communica- tion should have been carried by surtitles (by John Wells, no less) that came and went with no apparent logic — long stretches of text were left untranslated, while slogans were flashed up telling us things we could already see happening. Rum. I acknowledge, nervously, that Un re in ascolto would be very, very difficult to translate adequately, but it would be worth the effort. Communication really is all.

It was heartening, though, to see the Royal Opera mounting such a fabulous production and showing itself at its very best in the same week that its Develop- ment Board was caught with its trousers down, to its knees if not to its ankles. The management has apparently, like Lady Billows, called in the Yard to investigate the theft of confidential documents about the farcical Disneyland development. Theft? A leak, surely, and whoever did it is hereby awarded the Milnes Medal for Social Responsibility and thanked for giv- lag us all a really good laugh. Private dining rooms with sleeping accommoda- tion attached — well, honestly. They would make Ochsen of us all.