The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, English National Opera, London

Fresh scandal from fraught fashionistas
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The Independent Culture

Where Fassbinder's film is notable for its silence, Barry's score is notable for its loudness. Horns, trumpets and trombones charge over scales and arpeggios like stampeding bullocks, then busy themselves in the knots and thickets of contrary motion. Save for some silky sarcasm from the woodwind during Act IV, the sonority is relentlessly animalistic: not painful, but not exactly pleasant either. Amidst the priapic vaulting of valve and slide, the yelping octaves, and the yah-boo-sucks dissonance, the women bicker at a speed rather faster than that of normal speech; cultivating personas that are as artificial as the mannequins in Petra's studio. Astonishingly, Stephanie Friede (Petra), Rebecca Von Lipinski (Karin), Susan Bickley (Sidonie), Kathryn Harries (Valerie), and Barbara Hannigan (Gabriele) have coloured and contoured every brittle, angular syllable, though conductor André de Ridder is pushed to maintain a sympathetic balance between stage and pit.

Richard Jones's production, designed by Ultz, is one of the most impressive I have seen. It looks fantastic, it masks the longueurs in Denis Calandra's word-for-word translation, and balances visual absurdities (such as a giant cuddly kangaroo) with a stern emotional core. Though Petra's breakdown is inevitable from the moment we first see her barking down the phone in a maribou-trimmed mu-mu, Jones handles her humiliation with tenderness. Karin, whose Poppea-like ambition is as ugly as her family background, is skillfully transformed during her seduction: in outward appearance, as she dons a series of outfits from Petra's collection, and in bearing, as she colonises the catwalk beyond the proscenium arch. As Petra's frienemy Sidonie, Bickley delivers a perfectly judged performance; matched by Harries and Hannigan in their brief but demanding roles as Petra's mother and daughter. The lynchpin, however, is Linda Kitchen's Marlene: mute, demure, besotted, and broiling with rage. I would like to say that these characters are not women. (Certainly, Barry misjudges the cadence of female speech.) But this is art, not life, and Petra The Opera is less misogynistic than Petra The Film.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

To 7 October, 0870 145 0200

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