Miss Fortune at the Royal Opera House
Helen Wallace takes a gamble on Judith Weir's new opera at Covent Garden
There was a stifling sense of bathos at Covent Garden last night. An audience, many of whom were surely there because they admire Judith Weir and her work, walked around at the interval in baffled silence. What had happened to the wise, subtle, formidable Weir? How did this grotesquely banal parody of an opera get made?
By the radiant end of Act Two, bathos was edging into relief. The last 35 minutes at least had some dramatic shape, and the clarity, economy, and spacious sonorities of Weir’s style emerged in the score. But we were still left with a so-what story, no one to care about and, toe-curlingly, a cast in which the black ‘break-dancing’ characters were the criminal element. That might have washed in provincial Bregenz, where this opera was premiered last year, but in London it beggared belief.
Weir based her piece on a 19th century Sicilian tale, in which a little rich girl (soprano Emma Bell in glorious voice) leaves her wealthy parents, works for a living, loses and then wins money in a twist of Fate (the honey-voiced but underpowered countertenor Andrew Watts), gives it all away and rides off into the sunset with a Prince Simon (the charismatic Jacques Imbrailo).
Even from that synopsis the problems are clear: our heroine is not transformed by this episode in the ‘real world’ (ironing a few shirts in a Laundromat isn’t exactly hard labour), and there’s no character development. It’s like a charmless Candide without any jokes, or The Rake's Progress (which it clearly references) without its tragic heart. Instead of the chilling Shadow, we have the distinctly un-menacing character of Fate, whose only interventions appear to be connected with material loss or gain. He sparks off a stock-market crash at the beginning, a storm (the rising and falling scales in the orchestra were like something out of an end of term revue) and then organises the destruction of a kebab van, and the losing and winning of a lottery ticket. This two-dimensional notion of Fate itself means that when the love interest arrives on stage (very late in the day) in the shape of Jacques Imbrailo’s Simon, nothing has led up to that moment, and their sudden coupling is inexplicable.
It’s not the first time Weir has based a work on folktale – her dark, edgy Blond Eckbert had the quality of a fairytale and her memorably poignant The Vanishing Bridegroom was constructed from three folk tales – but Miss Fortune lacked an emotional core. Nor is it the first time she’s written her own libretto, though this one was peculiarly cliché-ridden (we even had a ‘light bulb’ moment). And this was probably the most spectacular staging one of her operas has ever received, a mesmerising rollercoaster of translucent colours, neon lighting and angular abstract shapes (by Tom Pye) directed with fluidity and flair by Chen Shi-Zheng. But for all its visual allure, Miss Fortune is a flat tale, neither tragedy nor comedy, nor conversation piece. A couplet in the Laundromat scene says it all: ‘No resistance, press it flat, Life is going to be like that.’
Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine