An ambitious double-bill by the Royal College of Music

On Monday,

ENO and Regent’s Park Theatre’s production

of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, invited us to ponder
Jamesian ambiguities and the moral and psychological chasms which open up
when appearance and reality, feeling and knowing, become confused.
Subsequently, this double-bill by the Royal College of Music International
Opera School trod a similarly equivocal line between imaginative fancies,
both teasing and threatening, and cold pragmatic reality.

The unknowable evil of James’s ghosts and the unfathomable horror of the
‘cry of the beast’ which lurches through the fog towards the three
lighthouse keepers at the close of Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse conjure similar psychological and paranormal
mysteries. But, the ‘nightmares’ presented by Huw Watkins and librettist
David Harsent in their forty-five-minute opera, The Locked Room,
are of a more prosaic, if no less tragic and disturbing, nature.

Ella Foley faces the misery of a loveless marriage and the frustrations of
bourgeois life. Married to the boorish Stephen – a mobile-phone clutching
businessman who’s desperate to seal a crucial City deal – Ella retreats
into poetry; namely, the work of Ben Pascoe. The poet, Ella is astonished
to learn from Susan, the owner of the Sussex home that she and Stephen are
renting, has a permanent lease on a single room in their cottage – a room
which the poet insists remains locked when he is absent. Retreating from
her husband’s insensitivity, and violence, Ella enters into an imagined
conversation with Pascoe; she is distressed to find that he has visited the
house while she was out, but seeing that the poet has left his coat on the
chair, she fantasises his return, and their subsequent spiritual and
physical union.

The Locked Room
was first seen in 2012 at the Edinburgh Festival and has subsequently been
produced in the ROH’s Linbury Theatre, by Music Theatre Wales, and more
recently by Staatsoper Hamburg. The libretto is ‘loosely’ based upon a
short story by Thomas Hardy, ‘The Imaginative Woman’. ‘Loosely’ is an apt
word; in fact, the programme booklet did not mention Hardy at all, director
Stephen Unwin preferring instead to describe the opera as an ‘Ibsenite
drama’. And, indeed, there is something of The Doll’s House, in
the painful discrepancy between Ella’s expectations, hopes and desires and
her practical situation.

But, Hardy’s story, while exposing the marriage of Ella and William
Marchmill to be characterised by evasion and self-deception, and
symptomatic of the nineteenth-century belief that matrimony was an
exemplification of the ‘necessity of getting life-leased at all cost’, is
as much a Romantic tale as a ‘modern’ one. Marriage is shown to be a
tragically inadequate means of realising the aspirations of the
individual’s creative, imaginative inner life. And, it is this absence of fulfilment which gives the short story its power.

In Hardy’s tale, this absence is represented by the elusiveness of the
poet, Robert Trewe, who never actually materialises in the text, beyond
Ella’s dreaming. We never see, nor hear directly from Trewe. As with The Turn of the Screw and The Lighthouse, it is
the stubborn refusal of the ‘text’ to yield its secrets that is at the root
of the narrative power. Trewe’s room in the Wessex boarding house where the
Marchmills are lodged is not locked and Ella appropriates this room,
‘because [his] books are here’. A would-be poet herself, she is envious of
the success and renown of his passionate and pessimistic verses, which seem
so much stronger than her own feeble lines.

Despite frequent intimations that he might pass by the house, Robert Trewe
never visits the Marchmill abode, though this does not prevent Ella
indulging in a quasi-sexual encounter with his photograph, futilely seeking
out the poet’s own lodging in a ‘lonely spot’ nearby. Eventually, she pens
Trewe a note of admiration, signed as her alias John Ivy, which receives a
short, polite response but initiates a regular, terse correspondence, and
she is able to manoeuvre a possible meeting with the poet, inviting him to
visit when he is in the vicinity. The meeting never occurs, and when Ella
learns, shortly afterwards, that the depressive has killed himself, Ella –
though the mother of three and pregnant with a fourth child – contemplates
suicide. In the end, she dies in childbirth; some years later the
resemblance of the boy to the photograph of Trewe which William finds among
her possessions when preparing for his second marriage, triggers jealous
suspicions and rejection of the faultless child.

I offer this summary of Hardy’s story not because I believe that Harsent is
obliged in any way to reproduce his literary model without imaginative
intervention and adaptation, but because it highlights one of the
weaknesses arising from the changes that he has made. While their
music-drama is taut and tense, Harsent and Watkins decision to present us
with the living, breathing Ben Pascoe – an alcoholic depressive who makes
use of Susan’s sexual services (“Is it me or the sex”, he asks; “The sex,”
she replies), destroys the essence of the emotional tragedy: the corporeal
manifestation of the imagined soul-mate – wearing turned-up jeans and a
scarf tightly wounded around his neck – over-powers the delicate
equivocation of the tale.

Transferring the tale to the modern-day seems to rob the characters of some
of their fullness of depiction and thus further reduces the moral
ambiguity. For example, Stephen seems too one-dimensional and crude.
Hardy’s William may be uncultivated and indifferent to Ella’s needs and
desires, but he is not cruel; Hardy describes him as ‘equable’ and ‘usually
kind and tolerant to her’. Harsent’s Stephen rapes his wife – and Watkins
provides the expected percussive assault. Hardy also shows that Ella, too,
contributes to the sterility of their marriage: she is a ‘votary of the
muse … shrinking humanely from detailed knowledge of her husband’s
[gun-making] trade’ which she considers ‘sordid and material’. Her
imaginativeness is not harmless; rather, it is tragically destructive, for
William and their child as much as for herself. Harsent’s Ella seems
entirely removed from any moral scrutiny. She does not die; instead, the
heavily pregnant Ella, standing beside the gravestone of Pascoe, rejects
her husband and retreats from the reality of marriage into her own
imaginative cocoon.

It’s partly a consequence of the up-dating of the tale, but another
problem, for me at least, is that the libretto is too prosaic, given that
it is the imaginative faculty, as symbolise by poetry, that Hardy both
celebrates and critiques, within the context nineteenth-century marriage.
Like Strauss, in Capriccio, Hardy is essentially asking, what is
poetry for? Stephen does ask Ella this question directly, but
it’s not a question that the opera itself really attempts to answer; the
score seems often to be quite detached from the drama ensuing on stage.
Stephen is glued to his mobile phone and frets about deals that may “come
good” or “tank”, ranting, “Jesus Christ! What a day I’ve had.” – though,
Harsent’s quip that business is simply a matter of “telling the right lie
at the right time” rings all too true.

These misgivings aside, Watkins’ score is a beautiful patterned tapestry of
understated sentiment and colour – burbling woodwind, string harmonics,
lyrical utterances from the horns – with occasional outbursts of violence
from the growling brass. It was played with accomplishment by the RCM
instrumentalists under Michael Rosewell.

And, the cast of four produced dramatically focused and confidently sung
performances. Thomas Erlank swaggered belligerently as the crude financier,
Stephen, singing with forthrightness and directness, while Theodore Platt
did well to make Ben Pascoe a more sympathetic character than the text
might suggest. Lauren Joyanne Morris delivered Susan’s quiet aria
assuredly. Beth Moxon delivered Ella’s short, declamatory lines with
conviction and fluency, while managing to make Ella appear convincingly
troubled and ‘lost’.

The staging was minimal, perhaps by economic necessity rather than choice,
but the central door which stood defiantly against a plain lit-backdrop of
blue sea-sky was an effective motif, one which put me in mind of another
‘locked room’ – that at the heart of Britten’s Owen Wingrave,
which presents another Jamesian mystery with a tragic denouement. Less
pleasing was the incessant shifting about of assorted chairs – garden
benches, arm-chairs, sofas – that were wheeled or carried briskly on and
off stage by headset-wearing, black-clad RCM stage-hands. It didn’t enhance
the depiction of the imaginative life.

Hannah Wolfe’s designs for The Lighthouse were similarly
economical but more evocative and inventive. Particularly effective was the
transition, in the opening Act, from the courtroom -represented by three
chairs placed before the front-curtain from which the officers gave their
disturbing evidence to the National Lighthouse Board – to the evocation of
the locale of their account: a transition effected by the half-lifting of
the curtain to reveal the foot of the lighthouse tower, swirling in mist
and shadows, at the centre of which three unoccupied chairs, over-turned
buckets, dangling ropes and lanterns, and other debris intimated
unexplained disappearance and fear. Subsequently, as the officers
‘re-enacted’ their discovery of the abandoned island, and the curtain rose
fully, we became increasingly immersed in their experience, only to be
swiftly returned to the present with the announcement of the open verdict
and the return to the front-stage courtroom.

Unwin and Wolfe couldn’t quite generate genuine, gripping horror in the
opera’s final moments; there was plenty of mist and some shadow-inducing
lighting, but the shifting shapes on the streaked back-drop and the sudden
blaze of red light didn’t have me on the edge of my seat. That was not the
fault of the three singers, though, who in both guises – officers and
light-house keepers – performed with tremendous commitment, intensity and
flair. Richard Pinkstone’s Act 1 narration was deeply engaging, and he
brought a similarly affecting tone to his Act 2 song about a mysterious
lover, imbuing the song with aching despair and distress. As Blazes, James
Atkinson was certainly a fiery spirit, his falsetto flashes indicating
psychological imbalance and anger in equal measure. Timothy Edlin thundered
Arthur’s Salvation Army hymns of damnation and redemption with passion and
rhetorical fervour. The playing of the RCM instrumentalists matched the
tautness of the unfolding drama, as Rosewell dug deep into Maxell Davies’s
striking sound-palette.

Overall, this was a characteristically ambitious and polished double-bill
by the Royal College of Music International Opera School.

Claire Seymour

Huw Watkins:

The Locked Room

Susan Wheeler – Lauren Joyanne Morris, Ella Foley – Beth Moxon, Stephen
Foley – Thomas Erlank, Ben Pascoe – Theodore Platt.

Peter Maxwell Davies: The Lighthouse

Sandy/Officer 1 – Richard Pinkstone, Blazes/Officer 2 – James Aitkinson,
Arthur/Voices of the Cards/Officer 3 – Timothy Edlin.

Director – Stephen Unwin, Conductor – Michael Rosewell, Designer – Hannah
Wolfe, Lighting Designer – Ralph Stokeld.

The Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London; Wednesday 27 th June 2018.

image_description=The Locked Room and The Lighthouse: Royal College of Music International Opera School
product_title=The Locked Room and The Lighthouse: Royal College of Music International Opera School
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Theodore Platt (Ben Pascoe) Beth Moxon (Ella Foley), Thomas Erlank (Stephen Foley), and Lauren Joyanne Morris (Susan Wheeler)