Heart of Darkness - Linbury Studio, 1 November 2011 (world premiere)
The new operas I've seen recently have largely been dull and disappointing - the sort of thing you'd like if you like that sort of thing. Not so Heart of Darkness, an atmospheric, accessible and largely faithful adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novella.
Tarik O'Regan's first step into operatic waters has spent several years in development, emerging fat-free and tautly structured. The story of Marlow's journey to the Congo is taken literally and told in flashback, as in the book, maintaining the fine balance between the tale and its telling. The single set is a ship's deck stacked with desk and crates, bobbing above and sometimes sinking beneath a watery base. Edward Dick directs with fluent economy. The action flits seamlessly between Africa past and London present with several of the small cast in double roles.
The Thames sections are signalled by African-flavoured motifs on plucked instruments. The rest is scored for a typical chamber orchestra of violins, flutes, clarinets and so on, and played with verve by the Chroma ensemble under Oliver Gooch. O'Regan's writing is largely tonal or modal, multi-textured and finely matched to dramatic incident. It's perhaps more of a soundtrack to Tom Phillips' dialogue-heavy text than a truly operatic source of drama in itself, but it still makes for a gripping 75 minutes.
It's Marlow's tale, so it's only natural that Alan Oke's clearly-sung, tightly-focussed portrayal dominated the action. The brief appearance of Danish bass Morten Lassenius Kramp as the deranged Kurtz, baleful and shadow-wreathed, had the requisite horrific impact, and the rest of the cast were excellent.
There aren't many tickets left, but do grab one if you can - and a spare for your friend who doesn't really like opera. This is the sort of production that might just change their mind.
production photos (above): Catherine Ashmore for the Royal Opera House
curtain call photos (below): intermezzo.typepad.com