Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London

Opera review: The Wasp Factory

1.00

A mind-numbingly pretentious 75 minutes

A massive explosion rends the darkness with seemingly endless reverberations; a wintry light reveals three half-naked women emerging from the piled-up earth which covers the neon-lit stage. The women begin to burrow in the earth, and wrestle balletically while singing impenetrably in three-part polyphony; in the background a string quintet sets up a busy curtain of sub-minimalist sound. If the audience had known that this was all they were going to see and hear for the next 75 minutes, there would probably have been a mass exodus at the start.

Some history: the late Iain Banks's novel The Wasp Factory is as astonishing now as it was when first published in 1984; the gut-wrenching horror of its subject-matter is conveyed through needle-sharp observation couched in prose by turns comic and lyrically beautiful, and its core is a psycho-sexual conundrum explained only on the final page. Masquerading as gothic horror, it's a minor literary masterpiece.

Having decided for some obscure reason to turn this all-male tale into an opera for three female singers plus a string quintet and electronics, composer-director Ben Frost hired David Pountney as librettist. Pountney has justified his ruthlessly stylised version (which Banks amiably disowned) with the argument that a 'faithful' adaptation is a pointless exercise, and that his job had simply been to grasp the book's central idea that a disturbed child could become a serial killer.

The programme carries an interview between Frost and a psychiatrist in which the psychiatrist discourses learnedly on autism, while Frost claims that as a boy he himself had much in common with the story's protagonist, even if his interest in home-made explosives didn't stretch to torturing animals and killing people.

Having read both the book and the libretto (which has its own gnomic logic), I'd assumed I'd know what was going on. However, there are no surtitles, and the crude amplification and ludicrously mannered word-setting mangle the sense so that nothing is comprehensible: Frost evidently disdains anything so banal as telling a story or sketching character, both of which should have been integral to the exercise. One's heart went out to the valiant singers – Lieselot De Wilde, Mariam Wallentin, and Jordis Richter – as they enacted their dismal and dangerous pole-dance for the final half hour, and one admired the stamina of the string-players. But by no stretch could this expensive and mind-numbingly pretentious farrago be described as an 'opera'.

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