For You, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

Sex and Strauss in Ian McEwan's first libretto

Lynne Walker
Thursday 30 October 2008 01:00 GMT

For You, the latest collaboration between the composer Michael Berkeley and the writer Ian McEwan, has finally made it to the stage after its postponement last spring, when the lead baritone was forced to withdraw. Now with the substitution of the authoritative Alan Opie, making the repellent central male character very much his own, For You has been launched in London instead of Brecon.

McEwan has conceived a dark tale in which he revisits a favourite topic of sexual obsession while giving his first opera libretto an audacious twist. The central character, Charles Frieth, is an eminent and breathtakingly arrogant composer and conductor, a monster in his egomaniacal immorality. Preparing for both a revival of an early work and the premiere of his magnum opus, Charles's callous treatment of those around him include the casual manipulation of a doe-eyed female brass player, the "horn of plenty". To his frazzled personal assistant it's an all-too-familiar ritual while to his infatuated and deluded Polish housekeeper, Maria, it's one of several indications that what Charles really wants is her.

His wife (sung with a burnished yearning by Helen Williams) puts up with their unharmonious relationship until illness, her Larkinesque fear of anaesthetic and the persistent charms of an alarmingly attentive doctor (Jeremy Huw Williams) make her confront her true feelings. A jealous Charles is forced to take stock. But not before the malevolent Maria has thought of a way of securing him for herself by triggering a shocking, if implausible, sequence of events. It was "For you, my sweet, for you," she repeats like a nightmarish lullaby to him, in the opera's claustrophobic closing bars. There is no doubting Berkeley's ability to write elegant and often entertaining music, with witty references to some of his earlier works and an overblown pastiche of the protagonist's magnum opus, along with a cheeky snatch of Mozart's Magic Flute and an opening gambit emerging almost seamlessly from the band's tuning. It is complemented by his deft way with both the work's large-scale structure and the several ensembles that he and McEwan have boldly woven into the texture of For You. These – including the substantial sextets which close each of the two acts – have all the more visceral impact for the intimate musical and dramatic contexts out of which they materialise.

In this poised production by Michael McCarthy for Music Theatre Wales, For You is a dazzling and taut chamber piece which gives passionate way to Bergian lyricism while referencing both Britten and Richard Strauss in its airy, word-driven vocal lines. The small versatile cast rises sturdily to the challenges, with surtitles relieving the singers of the pressure of expending more energy on putting across the words than on letting the music speak.

If some characters occasionally seem one-dimensional, their motives obscure, there is still plenty to engage with in McEwan's conversation-style text. Among the literary and musical conceits sprinkled within it are some extremely funny moments, not least the parallels between Charles and Don Giovanni which are highlighted in the farcical sexual shenanigans, the description of a gourmet feast and the integration of the excellent little Music Theatre Wales Ensemble as a bigger player in the action.

Opie invests Charles with the recognisable mannerisms of a paunchy and puffed-up maestro, while delivering the taxing vocal part with penetrating insight. As the servant whose raison d'être appears to be one long psychotic interlude, Allison Cook couples a creepy stage presence with a sustained lyricism especially in the folk music- tinged paean to her homeland. With the shadowing of the muted colour of her lower register by haunting cor anglais she enjoys the most seductive music in a many-layered score which expands to grotesque proportions – reflecting the overblown musical ambitions of the fictional composer – but which is, at its best, distilled to a lucid and mesmerising beauty.

'For You' will be at the Linbury Studio Theatre, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), 30 October and 1 November; at Sherman Theatre Cymru, Cardiff, 11 November; Gala Theatre Durham, 24 November, followed by Brecon, Mold, Birmingham and Oxford next summer

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