For You, Linbury Studio, London <br>Matilde di Shabran, Royal Opera House, London<br>I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Grand Theatre, Leeds

Michael Berkeley and Ian McEwan's new music drama is nasty, ghoulish and yet ineffectual

Anna Picard
Sunday 02 November 2008 01:00

Michael Berkeley and Ian McEwan's opera For You rewrites the Don Juan myth in the style of Holby City. Charles Frieth (Alan Opie) is a sexually incontinent conductor-composer. His wife, Antonia (Helen Williams), is a woman of peerless virtue but poor health. Her besotted physician and modern-day Don Ottavio, Simon (Jeremy Huw Williams), is a "simple type who prefers Vivaldi"; her nemesis, Maria (Allison Cook), a psychotic Polish housekeeper who, having failed to win Frieth's love with "Jugged hare or goulash/Venison or bream/ Pommes purées or sautéed/ Beetroot in a crust of salt/Figs in port with lavender ice cream", instead offers up a dish of dead wife on surgical tape tagliatelle.

From the olives in the opening chapter of Enduring Love to the bouillabaisse in Saturday, McEwan's interest in cookery is well known. But any wink of self-parody or black humour in his first libretto is obscured by Berkeley's detumescent orchestration and counter-intuitive word-setting. A tight performance from the orchestra under Michael Rafferty cannot disguise the fact that For You is as flaccid as its anti-hero's erection. As simple Simon says of Frieth's music, "the notes seem plucked at random". Certainly Maria's donnish turns of phrase – "the cup with its bloody lipstick cicatrix" – indicate a fluency in English superior to that of the composer.

Much as Tippett shot himself in the foot by quoting Schubert's "Die liebe Farbe" in The Knot Garden, Berkeley quotes "Bei Männern ..." from The Magic Flute and worries goutishly at 12-bar blues. Weak syllables are afforded baffling significance and devices such as faked orchestral tune-ups and excerpts from Frieth's Berkeley-esque Demonic Aubade are bungled. So are crucial details in Michael McCarthy's production. Antonia's "thready pulse" looks as strong as that of a young ox, and no murderess worth her sea-salt would leave fingerprints on a hospital trolley.

As the dictionary-swallowing, hare-jugging, bunny-boiling domestic, Cook is sewn into a role that allows no variety of tone. Williams and Williams are similarly hampered by shorthand characterisation, described only by their clothing and middle-class affectations, while Christopher Lemmings's camp, petulant composer's assistant, Robin, carps from the sidelines. As the pneumatic young horn-player whose come-hither embouchure earns her a "32-bar insertion" in Frieth's magnum opus, soprano Rachel Nicholls bounces and flounces with élan, but this is Opie's show: magnetic, pathetic, self-aggrandising, self-pitying, and a powerful performance in an ineffectual, rather nasty drama.

In eight years of reviewing new British operas, I've heard only two that I felt sure would be revived. Would the hit rate have been higher had I been working for the Italian press when Matilde di Shabran was premiered? Probably not.Rossini's rarely performed tale of a misogynist tyrant unmanned by feminine wiles launched Juan Diego Florez's career in Pesaro. Twelve years later, all the petite Peruvian has to do is clatter down a spiral staircase and the house applauds. But it is Aleksandra Kurzak's dimple-cheeked Matilde who steals the show in Mario Martone's bone-headed Royal Opera House production.

Pity a chorus that is forced to wander through an auditorium with sacks of unruly vegetables. I'm not sure what you can do with Matilde, but Martone hasn't done it, and neither has conductor Carlo Rizzi. Best to ignore the fugitive brassica, bored-sounding orchestra, traffic-cop gestures and massed gurning and concentrate on the singing which, with the exception of Vesselina Kasarova's gargled Edoardo, is exquisite. Florez's brief moments of lyricism offer delicious respite from the whirling roulades, while Kurzak sparkles all around the stave. It's tosh, but tosh with coloratura.

Played out in a bomb-torn ballroom, with shards of parquet flooring suspended mid-explosion like a Cornelia Parker installation, Orpha Phelan's modern-dress I Capuleti e i Montecchi for Opera North makes a strong case for the opera Berlioz described as "disgusting, ridiculous, impotent". While the Capulets train their children to kill using enemy prisoners as their targets, Giuletta (Marie Arnet) watches helplessly as her body-double is thrown across the stage like a rag doll. The tone is muted, desperate, caged; the singing refined and concentrated even in the bitter duel between Romeo (Sarah Connolly) and Tebaldo (Edgaras Montvidas). Sublime woodwind solos intensify an affecting, well-disciplined, often beautiful orchestral performance under Manlio Benzi.

'For You': Linbury Studio, London (020-7304 4000) 3pm, today; 'Matilde di Shabran': ROH (020- 7304 4000) to 11 Nov; 'I Capuleti e I Montecchi: The Lowry, Salford (0870-787 5790) 5-8 Nov

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