The UK premiere of Judith Weir’s new opera Miss Fortune, a co-commission with the Bregenz Festival, was indeed a blend of the ups and downs its story suggests. Life is a roller-coaster, its protagonists point out. But whatever happened to free will?
If Fate is a counter-tenor, then we’re all doomed. It’s a Sartre-esque choice of a voice, inescapable as it shadows the powerful lead soprano, Emma Bell, in the most claustrophobia-inducing way. The psychological, or psychiatric, implications of his presence as the voice inside Miss Fortune’s head could have been the most interesting thing about this opera, had they been explored a lot more. But they weren’t. The implications of her awful relationship with her ghastly parents, too, could have been explored a lot more, but… yes, exactly. And is her supposed saviour, a nice, very rich boy called Simon, actually that nice? Come off it – he wants to pull down Donna’s laundromat and build pied-a-terres for his City chums! Amid many uncomfortable dramatic choices, some of which are more uncomfortable than ever inside a place as plush as the ROH, Miss Fortune offers a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.
Miss Fortune’s personal Fate – Andrew Watts – isn’t to blame for that. He, his colleagues and the dazzling breakdancers of Soul Mavericks made the show a treat in its own way; so, too, the designs and its special effects (set: Tom Pye, lighting/projections: Scott Zielinski, Leigh Sachwitz, Flora and Faunavisions) – projected video effects are clearly flavour of the operatic zeigeist at the moment. The orchestra, under Paul Daniel, and the chorus provided all the sympathetic backup you should expect from a top international opera house.
Bell held the stage throughout, a scarlet flame in voice as well as costume. The men in her life – the American rising star tenor Noah Stewart as Hassan, the man with the kebab van, and the South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo as Simon – should have been a tough choice for her at the end, although she apparently doesn’t even consider the penniless Hassan. I’d have wished she’d gone off with him had Imbrailo’s gorgeous, luminous voice not beguiled heart and mind every bit as much. And had it not been for the quality of the singing, the breakdancers would have had a walkover triumph (though walking is perhaps the only thing that doesn’t happen in breakdancing).
I wonder if the Bregenz request for an opera “for an entirely normal audience” became perhaps a shackle to one of British music’s most enticing imaginations? Weir’s story is linear, told “from A to Z”, but supposing it wasn’t? Supposing there’d been carte blanche for her to turn more fantastical, to go deeper, to go wild with all the possibilities that music, drama, stage technology and fabulous musicians can offer? One way or another, that didn’t happen. The music felt as hamstrung as the drama. It just doesn’t get off the ground – not even when Noah Stewart sings his Aubade from the roof of kebab-van-ex-machina.
The trouble with updating folk stories about Fate to the modern world is that we have to believe that that is how things work. Covent Garden’s programme uses a quorum of chopped-down trees trying to convince us: among several essays on the topic, there’s even a fascinating one about chaos, randomness and astrophysics. But what happened to the fact that the financial crash – which sparks the entire story – was entirely man-made? It is a miserable history of cause, effect, ideological idiocy and the seven deadly sins, a true tragedy that unfurls the fatal flaws in human nature – Greek in more ways than one. That in itself would make a much better story. Yes, things do happen to us that we don’t plan. But sometimes, somewhere, some of those things are the result of someone else’s stupidity, greed or megalomania. You can’t entirely avoid cancer or multiple sclerosis. But financial crashes can be prevented by sensible economic management. And this opera is about a financial crash.
Here’s my alternative scenario for Tina and her missed fortunes.
* The sweat-shop workers join forces with the breakdancers and organise themselves into a powerful protest lobby. They hold Lord Fortune’s bossy wife to ransom and remind him of those modest, hardworking roots of which he boasts so copiously. His conscience is swayed.
* Instead of losing what remains of his offshore riches to pirates, he gives his daughter a trust-fund so that she doesn’t have to work in the laundromat but can devote herself to becoming Director of Communications for the protest lobby. He then agrees to stand as an independent MP to fight the cause of liberty, siblinghood, equality.
* Simon, instead of telling her to throw her winning lottery ticket away, uses his portion of the proceeds (because Tina’s going to share it all out) to chuck in his horrid City job and become a full-time baritone, donating the income from his first album to an inner-city regeneration project.
* He and Tina and Hassan can’t choose between one another, so they set up as a menage-a-trois and finish the opera by singing All You Need Is Love.
* Somebody seizes Fate by the throat and chucks him into the orchestra pit.
If you want to see it – and you should, for the singing and dancing at the very least – there’s a special offer from the ROH for 23 March, when you can get the best available seat, a kebab and a beer for £45. More details here.
(Photos: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House)