Love triangles. An ice rink hidden away. A murder most foul. No, this isn't an Agatha Christie play, it's the world premiere of The Skating Rink performed at Garsington Opera. Taken from Roberto Bolaño's 1993 novel, it's a tale of jealousy, displacement, greed, corruption, lust - an operatic murder mystery on ice. Set in a small seaside town on the Costa Brava, Spain towards the end of the summer in the early 1990s, The Skating Rink follows the three narrators - the poetic night watchman Gaspar, his successful and attractive boss Remo, and the obsessive bureaucrat Enric - as they tell their version of the events in the build-up to a body being discovered on the ice.
The set was minimalist with each area of the stage representing a distinctive space through the use of props which were brought on and off the stage at some speed by the stagehands. For example, the wooden walkway at the very front of the stage was the beach area, while tables and chairs in the front right hand corner of the stage signified the bars in town, and the ice rink was marked out towards the back of the stage. A moving box, much like a colourful greenhouse, was used by all of the narrators in turn as their offices and homes. The most impressive aspect of the staging was the artificial ice rink which could be walked on by the performers but importantly skated on without having to adapt the space. The lighting design by Malcolm Rippeth added to the drama, most notably when the body was discovered.
The ensemble, as a whole, were brilliant in their singing and their movement. The smooth Remo, played with arrogance and swagger by Ben Edquist, was particularly entrancing as the love-sick lothario with a penchant for fat-shaming. Enric (performed by last minute stand-in Grant Doyle) was the most three-dimensional of the narrators, gifted with the most introspective lyrics which in turn provoked sympathy, pity and disdain from the audience. Doyle's use of facial expressions added to the believability of the character; in one turn he wrenched at your heart strings, in the next he had the look of a serial killer in his eyes. Enric's physical appearance was the butt of many jokes, especially when he dreamt of gracefully ice skating with ease. This was well received by the audience who laughed heartily every time Enric's waistline was commented on but I felt it wore a little thin (excuse the pun). The destitute Carmen (Susan Bickley), her drunken lover Rookie (Alan Oke) and their wild-eyed companion Caridad (Claire Wild) were excellent; Bickley was convincing as a loud mouth, washed-up opera singer, complete with over-the-top eye make-up, sun damaged skin and ragged clothes - she dominated the scenes she was in with her commanding presence. The role of the hopeful ice skater Nuria was split into two roles: the singing/acting role was performed with high energy by soprano Lauren Zolezzi, and the graceful and powerful Alice Poggio took on the role of skating, which was mesmerising to watch.
The score focused on creating a state of high tension throughout, never letting up with high pitched, unpredictable notes adding to the sense of uncertainty and anxiety. Composer David Sawer's theatrical background was evident in the score, especially in moments of high drama with the reveals being highlighted by violins in an almost Psycho-like fashion. The eclectic mix of different genres and styles (including disco, Latin and more classical music) kept the audience on their toes: I imagine a highlight for many would be the unexpected karaoke scene (excellent 'singing', Steven Beard)! The award-winning librettist Rory Mullarkey has done an excellent job of translating the complex three person narrative of the story into a coherent, fast-paced plot that is easy to follow without removing the sense of mystery and intrigue. There was a clever use of lyrics (sung in English) to reflect the characters, with each of the narrators having a distinctive tone and specific way of expressing their side of the story. The language is a tad simplistic but there are some great one-liners: 'I'm not a monster, I'm a socialist.' That said I have reservations about the male-only narrative taken from the text. I would have liked to hear Nuria's thoughts, even if it were for just one scene, to give her an independent voice rather than just portraying her through her admirers' gaze.
So will The Skating Rink become the next Carmen? Certainly the themes of homelessness, immigration and corruption in government are contemporary and the story line is easy to follow and has enough twists and turns to keep it interesting. But would this be successfully transferable to other venues given the importance of the ice skating? We'll have to see. This isn't a child-friendly piece but there are enough of the whodunnit elements to make it a gateway show for opera novices to introduce them to the world of opera.