The Observer crit of The Skating Rink

Last year, Garsington Opera staged a successful new community opera,Silver Birch. This year they have their first world premiere on the main stage,The Skating RinkbyDavid Sawer, with a libretto by Rory Mullarkey based on the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s novel. Told from three perspectives, the opera is set in a seedy Spanish seaside town, late season. Three narrators piece together the story: Gaspar (Sam Furness), the poet-campside attendant; Remo (Ben Edquist), a shiny businessman; and Enric (Grant Doyle), the paunchy civil servant prepared to embezzle local funds for love, building an ice rink for the skater, Nuria (Lauren Zolezzi), object of his and Remo’s passion. Other characters, including two homeless women – persuasively sung by Susan Bickley and Claire Wild – exist on the fringes of society. Alan Oke shows a new, foul-mouthed side as the vagrant, Rookie.

The Skating Rink – trailer

Adroitly staged and designed by Stewart Laing – a few tents, a boardwalk, a multipurpose, Perspex cabin – The Skating Rink grows in intensity with each act. Tough verbal exchanges are offset by magical, chilly instrumental music for the skating scenes, plucked, spiky sounds conjuring an icy underground world. Zolezzi’s double as Nuria, the skater Alice Poggio, pirouetted and twirled on the artificial ice rink, transporting us far from Buckinghamshire heatwave discomfort.

Sawer’s imaginative scoring, using a small ensemble with saxophone, harp, guitar and ukulele-like charango adding Latin accents, shifts freely but precisely from set piece (song, marching band, karaoke scene) to through-written fluidity. Cast and orchestra, conducted by Garry Walker, served the music admirably. I wasn’t engaged by Bolaño’s novel – my shortcoming; it is much admired – but Sawer and Mullarkey gave it heart.