Opera review: The Skating Rink, Garsington Opera
This complex modern drama, brilliantly sung, is a frozen asset
David Sawer’s third full-length opera, The Skating Rink, had its world premiere at Garsington Opera, for which it was written, and it afforded the curious pleasure of seeing completely convincing impersonations of figure skating on a platform utterly un-iced at the height of a hot summer. The glass-walled opera house, in the midst of the almost ludicrously perfect English idyll that is the Wormsley Estate, in the Chilterns, was pierced by sun as the character in question spun round and round as if by magic — or, at any rate, with no sign of wheels on her feet.
It raised a cheer, which wasn’t really apposite, for we surely hadn’t come here to witness a spectacle, but to be moved by a musical experience. And, indeed, the score unveiled by singers and orchestra, conducted deftly by Garry Walker and making the keenest impact in a surprisingly vivid acoustic, was a palpably fine piece of work — full of flair and lovely inventions.The three-act structure has a libretto by Rory Mullarkey, adapting a 1993 novel by the Chilean Roberto Bolaño. This contemporary murder mystery, set in a Costa Brava resort, is very much a “structure”. Analogous narratives are told by a different character in each act, and we learn steadily more about what happens when the allure of a young skater, Nuria (Lauren Zolezzi), dropped from the Olympic team because the state has cut her funds for training, leads a civil servant, Enric, to imperil his career by having a rink built secretly in a decayed mansion, which becomes the scene of the crime.
The body of a blackmailing, vagrant former opera singer, Carmen, is discovered there, and a noirish chain of connections involves a young nightwatchman-poet, Gaspar; Remo (Ben Edquist), owner of a campsite from which Carmen and her friend Caridad (Claire Wild) are evicted (vagrancy is an idée fixe here); Carmen’s spurned vagrant lover (Alan Oke); and a manipulative mayor (Louise Winter).
It is easier to follow than might have been expected, because information is fed to us bit by careful (if tendentious) bit, constantly enlarging the dramatic picture. But I couldn’t help feeling the appeal for the creators of this unusual structure was progressively outweighing that of the actual characters. In the first two acts, the musical pointing of situation and emotion has a fleet and dazzling subtlety: one is ever aware of perspectives opening up behind the voices as Sawer’s small orchestra generates a cascade of images, often multilayered, always scored with masterful economy. The idiom may be broadly, even indulgently, tonal, but it never feels conservative, and Sawer is well off without that dry, arioso vocal writing that routinely mars modern opera. Drolly, he touches the other extreme of vocal style with a karaoke solo (Steven Beard) for the disco in Act III.–– ADVERTISEMENT ––
Yet that act and the succeeding coda — revealing the now obvious identity of the murderer and ending with an awkward metaphor of ocean waves frozen in midair and a last-minute snow shower — are too engrossed with text and plot to allow much poignancy. For The Skating Rink to be more moving than, say, an Agatha Christie, it would need a proper musical crystallisation here, not a farewell sententiousness (“Each man kills the thing he loves”).
Still, the colourful design and partly in-the-round staging by Stewart Laing were enjoyable, the cast excellent. Outstanding were the tenor Sam Furness as Gaspar, Susan Bickley as Carmen and Grant Doyle as a stand-in Enric; not to mention the silent skater Nuria, Alice Poggio. There was something poetic about the image of the secret rink. And I loved the Handelian dash of the opera’s opening.