The Truth About Love, Royal Opera House, London
Thursday 15 October 2009
Four talented Jette Parker Young Artists, three song cycles, one very familiar canvas – life, love, loss. The devisor and director of this somewhat overcooked confection, Jose Dario Innella, subtitled it “Dramatic ruminations over Schumann, Britten, and Ebel song cycles” and therein lay the problem: too much rumination. Directed to within an inch of its life, the title – The Truth About Love - is drawn from the most familiar of Britten’s Cabaret Songs whose stanzas are scattered like discarded one-liners throughout the evening.
Admittedly the jokes are pretty lame (W.H. Auden had better days), but it wasn’t until later in the performance (disrupted by a ruinously long interval) that anyone in the audience felt permitted to laugh, such was the heavy as opposed to ironic tone of the show. The linking narrative is drawn from Rainer Maria Rilke’s diaries which the promising young tenor of the group, Steven Ebel, has fashioned into a series of songs essaying the human condition through Rilke’s own struggles with life, love, and the eternal crisis of faith. To these two sources Innella has added a third – Schumann’s glorious song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben which chronicles one woman’s journey through life, love, motherhood, and death. Rilke wrote: “God presides over Life and Death. But he has no dominion over the in-between land.”
And I guess it was “the in-between land” that Innella was striving to evoke here. The visual style of Alejandra Espector’s costumes was pure German expressionism with added metaphors of water and sand (the sand-pit a childhood recollection?) and the naked presence of two wire mannequins. But the physical style is what really jarred with much moping and emoting and posing pulling the focus away from the protagonist of the moment. And even then the jumping between cycles and styles and language (with no translations to make the subtler connections) left one disorientated amidst a surfeit of angst.
One or two of the juxtapositions made one sit up and the big-voiced, PVC clad, soprano Elisabeth Meister certainly did storming through the saga of “Johnny” who “frowned like thunder and went away”. But Kai Ruutel’s no more than adequate Schumann was undermined in the culmination of a blood-curdling scream and surely not to end with the healing measures of Schumann’s solo piano postlude was a mistake too far.
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