There’s no excuse for losing the plot in David Sawer’s new opera. The same story, the same murder, the same array of sleazy, unhinged or rootless drifters washed up at a 1990s Spanish holiday campsite are chronicled three times in succession, each from the perspective of a different character.
Rory Mullarkey, the librettist, keeps the surreal low-life atmosphere of his source material — a novel by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano — but tightens it into a terse, two-hour drama with all the twists and pace of a TV thriller. Sawer matches that with music as direct and striking as the material he sets.
His score is shamelessly and spectacularly eclectic. It embraces karaoke, a sinister Brittenesque deployment of the simplest tonalities and the Charles Ives-like entry of a marching-band as well as much more avant-garde instrumental techniques including eerie detunings.
As Sam Furness’s dishevelled poet-turned-caretaker Gaspar muses over his growing love for Claire Wild’s dead-behind-the-eyes junkie Caridad, the music has the open-chorded ingenuousness of Copland. Yet as Ben Edquist’s spivvy wheeler-dealer Remo and Grant Doyle’s corrupt local official Enric find themselves obsessing over the same girl — Nuria, an Olympic skater desperate for funding and a skating-rink to perfect her technique — Sawer’s score becomes much more brittle, abrasive and jazzy.
And yes, in Stewart Laing’s sets for his own staging there really is a working skating rink (although made of plastic rather than ice), gradually revealed under the detritus of the campsite. There’s real skating, too, from the lithe Alice Poggio, simultaneously cast as Nuria with the rising Australian soprano Lauren Zolezzi.
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It’s also on the rink that the murder is committed — of Carmen, a raddled old vagrant who used to be an opera singer (a magnificently grotesque performance by Susan Bickley, matched by an equally characterful cameo from Alan Oke as her croaking, alcoholic lover Rookie). She had claimed to know all about Enric’s embezzlement of public money to buy Nuria her ice-rink, but (spoiler alert!) that doesn’t necessarily mean Enric was the one who killed her.
At its bleak conclusion the opera presents a Samuel Beckett-like pessimism about life’s possibilities, but it also contains a wickedly funny streak of black satire, especially involving Louise Winter as the town’s ruthlessly self-promoting mayor. The score is vividly and virtuosically played under Garry Walker’s impeccable direction. Boldly commissioned by Garsington, it deserves many more outings. You can hear it on the BBC Radio 3 website later this year.
Box office: 01865 361636, to July 16