It's the music and Stephanie Friede's vocal prowess in the demanding title role that gave this stage premiere its clout. Beforehand, the talk had been about sexuality and surtitles. Yes, the libretto may be in English, but you do need to see it - just as you do to follow a Tippett opera, though for different reasons. Barry has set every last word of Rainer Fassbinder's play, an even longer text than the more famous film. Its mouthfuls of translated polysyllables were never meant for singing, yet the way Barry's setting charges along, you wouldn't catch it all even if it had won the Plain English Award. He can bring off the rise and fall and rhythmic patterns of conversation, but he needs back-up.
Richard Jones's production, designed by Ultz, puts the action on a thrust stage, with a catwalk running round the front of the orchestra pit, but even this aid to vocal projection can't win an unequal face-off with the orchestral brass. Anyway, the orchestra lives out Petra's inner turmoil to a startling degree. It adds a layer of heart-racing excitement as her desire for Karin progressively loses touch with reality. Distressed she may become, but the composer is in there egging her on, and perish the consequences.
Jones charts the early stages of her decline with a fine eye for the gay manners of the 1970s, backed up by a generous supply of period detail in Petra's apartment and an array of increasingly outlandish dresses that Karin models while Petra is looking her over. There is scope for cruel mockery, but Jones resists it, only to succumb later to an orgy of gin bottles, trampled cakes and disembowelled cuddly toys. The play goes downhill here, making Petra's family mere ciphers, while her own actions verge on the posturing of a scorned drag queen. You find yourself confronting the almost exclusive maleness of the creative team for this all-female show. Fortunately, Barry dispatches it all so briskly that it doesn't undermine Petra's eventual, perhaps temporary, self-knowledge.
The rest of us are allowed to know her pretty thoroughly long before, and the other characters too. Even during the orchestral prelude, the silent drudge, Marlene, switches between a languid fondling of tailor's dummies and an uptempo military subordinate's strut - the personality in a nutshell. But scandal-watchers will find nothing more shocking than an on-stage pee. The subtexts of dominance, subservience and humiliation remain mostly subtexts, though sharply illuminated - notably in Linda Kitchen's portrayal of Marlene, clearly terrified at the end that she might be treated as an equal.
Singers all had the necessary virtuoso flair. Friede's Petra flung out her demented musical lines with an assurance as striking as her psychological hold on family and colleagues. Rebecca von Lipinski gave Karin the unwitting self-absorption of a child, Susan Bickley took on an easy "normality" as Petra's friend Sidonie, and as Petra's mother and daughter, Kathryn Harries and Barbara Hannigan, respectively, were able to create just about believable cameos. Hannigan's high-pitched wails of "mama" even made her a character you could feel for - perhaps more than the creators intended. The ENO orchestra struggled at times, but it will improve with the run, and the conductor Andre de Ridder kept up an unflagging momentum.
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