Bedford’s Brilliant New Opera Takes Deceit as its Theme

06/04/2014

  Luke Bedford:Through His Teeth: Soloists, Chroma / Sian Edwards (conductor),. Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 3.4.2014 (CC)

A: Anna Devin
Interviewer/Sister: Vitoria Simmondss
R: Owen Gilhooly

Luke Bedford’s star is decidedly in the ascendent. His short, one-hour opera Through His Teeth, produced along with (although not alongside) Matthew Herbert’s The Crackle, is part of an inspired idea by the ROH to complement the return of the McVicar staging of Gounod’s Faust in the Big House. A Col Legno disc of works by Bedford (WWE 1CD 40404), including the striking Wonderful Two-Headed Nightingale, impressed me when it was issued; a concert of Bedford’s music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (with a new version of that piece entitled Wonderful No-Headed Nightingale because of the loss of the soloists in the new garb) was just as notable. Both disc and concert reminded us that quarter-tones are part of Bedford’s expressive vocabulary, and so it was in the new opera.

Receiving its world premiere, Through His Teeth focuses on the concept of deceit (vital to the Faust legend of course). As if emphasising the transferability of the tale, anonymity is key: no character actually has a name. The girl, the major female protagonist, is merely ‘A’; the man ‘R’. The third protagonist is simply ‘Interviewer/Sister’. A sleazebag of a car salesman (archetype it may be, but surely only estate agents top the sleaze list above car salesmen?), lures a prospective purchaser, A, into his distorted fairground mirror of a life, wherein he fancies himself as an MI5 agent. The opera begins with the woman being interviewed; the scenes we see thereafter are therefore retrospective. A scene in a restaurant/wine-bar reveals the extent of her anger and frustration at R’s frequent absences.

Bedford’s collaborator was David Harrower, who has expertly and concisely provided a libretto that is clear in its manipulations of time but which nevertheless leaves plenty of questions unanswered. Director Bijan Sheibani, making his Royal Opera debut, directs with real skill. The use of video footage, and videos generally, is all the rage across the road at the Coliseum (and indeed at Ambika P3 for their production of Adès’ Powder Her Face); I associate it less with Covent Garden, but here it is effective. Projected images (CCTV, terrorism …) are an effective part of the theatre on offer. The stage is generally uncluttered; sliding panels enable rapid scene changes.

The lies that propel this drama (R lies ‘through his teeth’) are explored in music of great power and skill. Bedford is now so compositionally secure in his own skin that he can effortlessly move from more conventional harmonies through to quarter-tone inflected passages via more extended, dissonant harmonies that either threaten or negate harmonic references. In opting to have each scene represent a certain aspect of relationship, he has given himself a concision that seems to reflect the scalpel-like precision of his expressive voice. Put briefly, it never feels as if there is a superfluous note in his scores.

The three singers are perfect for their roles: clearly much thought went into casting. Anna Devin, a former Jette Parker Young Artist, is absolutely convincing as the manipulated young woman at the heart of the drama. To bring this off takes real acting skill, and Devin is superb in projecting her character’s fragile vulnerability. She rises to each and every of Bedford’s musical challenges; we feel her excitement, and her anguish. As R, baritone Owen Gilhooly, making his Royal Opera debut, looks the part and sounds it as well; his voice has all the requisite heft. Victoria Simmonds (most recently Marie in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin in 2013) is confident and just as immersed in her role. Her interactions with Devin are spellbinding.

Bedford’s scoring is fascinating: an accordion accords a glassy sound to the music, the aforementioned quarter-tones perfectly judged in their orchestrational placement. His use of spare textures is notable – he would rather have dramatic power whispered than shouted, clearly. There is a distinct light touch to Bedford’s writing that ensures transparency; and Edwards’ fine ear ensured that this was honoured. To be present at the world premiere of this opera was a privilege indeed, and just underlined that Luke Bedford is a compositional voice worth watching.

Colin Clarke

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