Taking on King Lear is no small matter. Not simply because it was written by Shakespeare—what could be more daunting?—but also because the play delves into one of the darker and more complex regions of human interaction: abuses of power within the family. Perhaps because of that subject, the post-Freudian 20th century was rife with performances and versions of the play, with adaptations ranging from Jean-Luc Godard’s post-Chernobyl fantasy, King Lear, in which Woody Allen plays the Fool and opera director Peter Sellars a fifth-generation descendant of Shakespeare, to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, which mixes Lear with Japanese history to create a period drama set in the Warring States era.
While film and stage have cavorted wildly with the play, opera has been less forward, producing only one complete adaptation of the play, German composer Aribert Reimann’s 1978 version, Lear. This fall, however, the English Touring Opera brought composer Alexander Goehr’s recent adaptation, Promised End, to Exeter and various houses across England. The opera premiered in London on October 9.
Promised End is a very condensed version of King Lear, pared down to chamber opera size. Shakespearean scholar Sir Frank Kermode wrote the original libretto using only Shakespeare’s text, and Goehr reduced his text by half, dividing it into 24 brief fragments. It’s to both men’s credit that they were able to condense the play into its most salient parts, transforming it from a representational theater work with elements bordering on the supernatural to something more closely resembling a fable or myth. The play is not ill served by the transition.
Except for a few minor parts necessary for the movement of the plot, the characters were reduced to the two erring fathers, Lear and Gloucester, who share the sin of being unable to discern their children’s true motives or personalities—the former because of narcissism, the latter because of a gullibility bordering on bad faith—and Lear’s daughters and Gloucester’s sons, whose motives—good and bad—are obvious. The Fool becomes a kind of doppelganger for Cordelia in her truth-telling aspect and is sung by the same soprano; a decision that makes metaphoric as well as production sense.
While the music is at times very beautiful with a transparent, slightly haunting quality, especially in the handling of the woodwinds, the setting of the text lacks both the engaging quality of melody and the dramatic vigor of dynamics. Rather, the vocal lines sound like one recitative after another, and even as recitatives the settings are not very compelling. The music doesn’t seem entirely connected to the drama of the story’s action, which moves forward through the heightened emotional situations of betrayal, rejection, murder and madness.
Nonetheless, this was a stylish and thoughtful production designed by Adam Wiltshire with lighting by Guy Hoare. Besides the see-through moving screens and moody lighting, the only sets were a throne, a cube of colored sand, and dozens of elk and reindeer horns. At the beginning of the play the horns were suspended above the throne like an ominous and bony cloud; later, they became the weapons the sisters used against each other in Cordelia’s battle to reclaim Lear’s throne. The duplicitous sisters’ costumes were trimmed in feathers; Goneril (Jacqueline Varsey) wore deer horns, Regan (Julia Sporsén) a crown of long blue-black feathers. The effect was eerie and elemental.
The singers were all endowed with resonant and pleasing voices; the most distinguished of them was Roderick Earle, whose clarity of diction and intensity of focus never wavered. Lina Markeby made a luscious “low-voiced” Cordelia and Fool. Nicholas Garrett sung a bold and deep-voiced Edmund and Adrian Dwyer sang a lyrical and honey-toned Edgar.
James Conway directed. The excellent Aurora Orchestra was conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth.
Other performances of Promised End include:
The Hawth, Crawley, 1 Nov 2010, 7:30 pm
Cambridge Arts Theatre, 3 Nov 2010, 7:30 pm
Cambridge Arts Theatre, 6 Nov 2010, 7:30 pm
Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 26 Nov 2010, 7:30 pm
Photo: Lina Markeby as the Fool, Roderick Earle as King Lear and Adrian Dwyer as Tom o’ Bedlam. Photo by Robert Workman