OPERA / Zero pulse rate: Finnissy gets a lifeless premiere in Bury: Therese Raquin - The Garden Venture

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The Independent Culture
In fashioning his touring opera Therese Raquin to fit small theatres and tight budgets, Michael Finnissy is within his rights to alter Emile Zola's novel. Finnissy (who wrote his own libretto) tightens the focus by doing away with all but the four central characters; and David Blight's single set - a dimly lit 19th-century garret - heightens the claustrophobia. Here, these sorry misfits might well be driven to desperate deeds. The exquisite daintiness of the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (where the opera had its premiere last Friday), provided a telling contrast.

Yet something is lacking. The slimming process deprives Finnissy of a world to hem these people in. When the synopsis tells us that lover Laurent's murder of Therese's husband takes place 'outside specific place or time', we only sense that it is happening outside the room, on the stairs perhaps. When Therese, mad with guilt, decides to 'seek oblivion in filth and squalor', we see no filth or squalor, nor desperation. This is still the same tidy, petit bourgeois home of the opera's beginning. Nor is Finnissy helped by Wilfred Judd's direction, reticent to the point of abnegation. The story needs violent passion, not this meticulous sobriety.

Finnissy restricts instrumental accompaniment to piano (Christopher Willis), but that doesn't mean that grand - operatic - gestures are out of the question. The composer sees the piano as 'a kind of brain-scan or cardiograph' of the characters, yet it seems that their life-support system has failed during long periods of doodling inactivity. Perversely, it is only when the piano plays the conventional role of illustrator - shimmering clusters of watery notes for a river, for example - that the dramatic pulse makes itself felt.

The music for the singers is more forceful, and they enjoy it. Heather Lorimer is excellent as Therese, poutily sulking one moment, tormented the next. Linda Hirst is a too benign Mme Raquin. Something more sinister is required. Richard Jackson duly obliges as Laurent. But why is the wet (in more ways than one) husband Camille a counter-tenor: surely Finnissy isn't suggesting that such a weak, 'unmanly' figure must be a falsettist? Whatever, Andrew Watts sings well within himself.

Paradoxically, there is a more operatic telling of Zola's story at the Young Vic, where the manic inventiveness of Julia Bardsley's staging achieves something akin to opera although not a note is sung. Bardsley gets more out of Zola not simply by including more, but by perceiving the rotting heartlessness of the story. Personally, I find opera more powerful than spoken theatre. Here, for once, the balance of power has shifted.

Tour details: 0223 300202. London perfs: 26, 27, 29, 30 Oct, French Institute, Queensbury Pl, SW7 (071-589 6211)