United Kingdom David Sawer, The Skating Rink (world premiere): Soloists, Garsington Opera Orchestra / Garry Walker (conductor), Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 5.7.2018 (CR)
Enric – Grant Doyle
Gaspar – Sam Furness
Remo – Ben Edquist
Carmen – Susan Bickley
Caridad – Claire Wild
Nuria – Lauren Zolezzi
Rookie – Alan Oke
Pilar – Louise Winter
Nuria skater (silent) – Alice Poggio
Karaoke singer – Steven Beard
Director and Designer – Stewart Laing
Lightning designer – Malcolm Rippeth
Costume designer – Hyemi Shin
Movement director – Sarah Fahie
David Sawer’s new work, commissioned by Garsington Opera, is based on the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s first novel The Skating Rink (1993). The three acts of Robert Mullarkey’s libretto, into which the opera condenses the source material, are not a continuous narrative, but follow the structure of the novel in offering three slants or perspectives upon the same sequence of events from the point of view of three different characters. In principle and practice that is an effective idea, as the drama is not simply told three times over, but additional information and angles are disclosed each time, filling in the audience’s understanding of the unfolding action, in a fictional seaside town on the Costa Brava. This threefold narrative converges upon the skating rink of the title, created surreptitiously in the basement of a dilapidated mansion by the civil servant Enric, who is infatuated with Nuria, an Olympic ice skater.
Although set at the time that the novel was written, the drama’s outward themes remain all too pressing in today’s political climate. Against a backdrop of public sector cuts (which includes Nuria’s funding) the mayor, Pilar, attempts to bolster her position in the run-up to an election by seeking the removal of vagrants from the town. Amongst them are Carmen and Caridad, who have taken up residence in the campsite managed by Remo, who is also in love – or really, just in lust – with Nuria.
That could make for an astute comment upon the conflicts between public and private duty. But at the immediate human level, the opera becomes rather more like a lurid episode of the short-lived, early 1990s British soap opera, Eldorado, set in another fictional town on the Spanish Costas. In order to keep Nuria happy, Enric is motivated to embezzle public funds to build her a secret ice rink. Carmen comes to know of that and so tries to blackmail Enric. When she is found dead on the ice, Enric becomes a suspect in the audience’s mind, but the fact of her earlier tiff with Rookie raises another. In the opera’s coda, in a dialogue between Rookie and Remo, the former’s guilt is revealed, but not in a very insightful way – the Shakespearean cliché that ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ is reeled out, but without shedding light on the nature of his and Carmen’s relationship, or his particular motivation for murdering her.
In the story, Carmen is a former opera singer and so, doubtless, we are meant to be put in mind of Bizet’s eponymous opera, which similarly deals with the contradictory demands of public and private duty, as well as sexual passion and obsession. There is also a neat parallel between the two operas in that the main characters’ hopes and illusions run aground in a bull ring and an ice rink respectively. But The Skating Rink tends more towards a straightforward ‘whodunnit’ with less vivid exploration of personality and motivation, notwithstanding a varied score by David Sawer whose word setting imaginatively distinguishes between lyrical outpourings in the vocal melody, and more direct, syllabic setting of the words, according to the dramatic temper of the moment. Weaker still is the fact that in each of the three acts, considerable portions of the libretto are simply structured as reported narrative by the given character for that act (Gaspar, Remo, and Enric in order) addressed directly to the audience, though some action behind it, but that tendency towards narration rather decreases dramatic momentum.
Fortunately, that does not hamper the performance of the singers who create their roles convincingly. Sam Furness is a mellifluously-voiced Gaspar, to whom Act I is given over as he tells his side of the story although, other than working in the campsite, and being the lover of Caridad (one of the vagrants), his role is curiously peripheral to the drama. Ben Edquist sings with a more direct, assertive quality that effectively realises the louche, macho character of Remo. Grant Doyle (standing in for Neal Davies) brings humanity and sensitivity to the part of Enric and draws some sympathy, despite the character’s underhand actions which lead him to prison.
Where Susan Bickley gives a forceful account of Carmen – relishing the character’s more histrionic disposition as a former opera singer – Claire Wild offers a more discreet foil as Caridad, her fellow vagrant. Alan Oke is fully capable of standing up, dramatically, to Bickley’s Carmen as her lover, Rookie, with cockney (or indeed mockney) style of declaiming the part even if as a result, between them, Carmen and Rookie look and sound more like East End down-and-outs than their Spanish equivalents. Nuria is present on the stage more through Alice Poggio’s elegant skating – providing necessary contrast with the other characters as a point of gracefulness and autonomy in the drama – than in Lauren Zolezzi’s daintily sung performance.
Garry Walker leads the Garsington Opera Orchestra in a well-paced account of the score that garners rhythmic propulsion right from its opening bars. The pointilliste colouring of the music from the various instrumentalists is accurately on cue, at least instilling urgency and direction to the drama where it is sometimes lacking on stage. The Skating Rink certainly has its moments as a piece of music theatre, but the conjunction of the two primary elements of music and drama are not sufficiently sustained to make this as engaging and stimulating an opera as it could be, given its raw material.