The Organ

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

English National Opera
London Coliseum
16th September 2005

Anyone expecting to be outraged by a sexual romp at the opening of the new ENO season may have been disappointed as Gerald Barry's setting of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant retains a high level of seriousness throughout, even when humour is allowed to seep through. Much has been done to give the production a theatrical rather than operatic environment. The set is placed entirely outside the proscenium arch with a cat-walk between the (now invisible) orchestra pit and the audience. The scale of Petra's flat has a seventies opulence, often dwarfing its inhabitants. Costumes are gloriously accurate, often nostalgically so, retaining close contact with the film.

Readers might begin to wonder what I heard; and herein lies the difficulty. I have no problem with surtitles, even in English opera, though they can too easily distract from the stage action. The speed with which Gerald Barry's setting of the whole of Fassbinder's text moves would make intelligibility difficult even in a conventional theatre. When this is wedded to often very loud orchestral accompaniment the text disappears or escapes in mangled nuggets. Does this matter? Often the answer might be no, where the score carries as much information or more than the text. Unfortunately this is not true of Gerald Barry's score. Though frequently exciting, with some finely scored brass interludes, too much of the score comes across as vague emotional support for the text. It rarely, if ever, comments on the text or action, nor does it differentiate for character. If anything it is the uniformity of sound, which continues for most of the evening, and proves to be its own undoing. There is little sense of shape or musical line other than that demanded by the dialogue.

One of the most telling moments comes when Petra and her daughter confront each other unaccompanied. The sudden silence around them is remarkably effective but then we are plunged back into an aural maelstrom which smothers potential differences of characterisation or emotion.

It is also a little alarming that the most interesting character on stage is Marlene who sings even less than Kundry in Act Three of Parsifal! Linda Kitchen was magnificent here, her emotional roller-coaster evident throughout, bursting with appalling pain in the final moments. Richard Jones' production, while appearing heavily naturalistic, constantly draws our attention to Marlene even when she is far away from what appears to be the main action.

By contrast Stephanie Friede's Petra hardly stops for a second but is not always the focus of our interest. Too often her behaviour seems superficial but we are rarely drawn to sympathise with her or feel concern. By the end she appears to have learned nothing - a spoilt child of the seventies.

The rest of Petra's entourage are little more than caricatures, though the casting is excellent, particularly Barbara Hannigan's petulant teenager. The orchestra plays with commitment though the sound is hampered by the set - a warning to anyone who might think a Bayreuth-like covered pit might be a good idea in the Coliseum. Andre de Ridder keeps the action tight and concise, responding sympathetically to Richard Jones' production.

But I came out wondering if it was really worth the enormous effort taken to mount it and the exceptional levels of singing throughout. ENO took a risk - rightly so as there is no place for museum opera - and while enjoyable it did seem something of a musical cul de sac - a bit like platform heels and fright wigs.