The Commission and Cafe Kafka at the Royal Opera House

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Helen Wallace reports from two new productions at the Royal Opera House

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The Commission and Cafe Kafka at the Royal Opera House

History is strewn with still-born operas: brilliant concepts derailed at the premiere by poor performance, production or public taste, consigned to outer darkness for decades - or for ever. Most new operas today receive a handful of make-or-break performances, so this new initiative from Aldeburgh Music, Opera North and the Royal Opera House to give two works a thorough airing with the crack ensemble Chroma is welcome indeed.

Both chamber pieces took risks with the form: in Café Kafka Meredith Oakes reshuffled scenes on the nature of human contact from Kafka’s short stories, to which composer Francisco Coll responded with fiery conviction. The nightmarish The Commission, composed by Elspeth Brooke to a libretto by Jack Underwood, was based on a Michael Donaghy poem.

This proved dangerous. While it oozed noir atmosphere, with its mysterious characters, arresting palette of tinkling mandolin, buzzing cimbalon and pungent bass combined with judicious sound design, the musico-dramatic plotting was confused and parts of the libretto sank to stilted non-sequitur. The Craftsman (a convincing Andri Björn Róbertsson) has come to seek revenge on a Merchant who killed his brother, but is paralysed by doubt, and disturbed by the mute daughter of his fellow craftsman (a luminous Anna Dennis). Her self-harming, thumb amputation and the consequent recovery of her own voice (‘I will speak the language clean’) begin to dominate, leaving the Craftman’s story hanging like a redundant limb on stage. If, as the libretto says, ‘A good piece of art is a well-made question’ one felt Underwood had begun with the wrong question here, not helped by Annabel Arden’s gothic horror production. And while Brooke’s slinky soundscape shifts subtly between speech, sound, recorded song and lyric aria, it felt ultimately fragmentary, as if we had glimpsed a scene in a window on a passing night train.

It almost seemed cruel to place Brooke’s piece before Coll’s explosive comic gem, Café Kafka. The Spanish Coll is a major talent (published by Faber), with a potent, dark-hued voice all his own. Working with the dramatically intuitive Meredith Oakes (whose librettos include Ades’s The Tempest) he had the advantage of a clever text, which achieved directness, comedy, irony and profondity in a startlingly short span.  One could describe it as a sort of Expressionist 'snog, marry, avoid' with the saturated colour of Almodovar charged with Gerald Barry-esque mania. Yet it also taps into deeper and stranger existential questions that have a jolting relevance: the characters want to escape their lives (but where to?) and to escape loneliness (but who can love?). Dazzling coloratura soprano Suzanne Shakespeare is the girl who knows her ‘goal’, Anna Dennis the woman seeking love, as long as it’s not with a nobody like Man 1 (the poignant Daniel Norman) while the sweet-toned William Purefoy lures her away. Hectic invention gives way to dream-like beauty as the half-naked Gracchus (Róbertsson) emerges from behind the bar to give the bleak perspective of a dead man.  Oakes has distilled the claustrophobia and despair of Kafka’s writing into a few brief lines that drive a hot-blooded score, voices and instruments sparking off each other in an intimate dance, mirrored by the vivacious jiving on stage. Arden’s slick production delivers (rarely has a beaded curtain been used to such stylish effect). Could Coll be the composer Spain has long been waiting for?