The show had to go on though, so the director walked the part, with one of the sopranos singing along from the side of the stage. This arrangement continued until his reappearance during the interval, suffering some kind of injury but bravely singing from the orchestra pit while the director continued to walk around and mime on-stage. An unexpected turn of events, but the most surprising thing of all was how little it mattered. Music Theatre Wales demonstrated such knowledge of the work, willingness to make it come together and conviction in the acting that it didn't detract from the performance at all.
The story itself concerns a famous composer, Charles, who has a penchant for getting to know his female orchestra members too well, while his sick wife leads a hollow life as a domestic martyr. This "privileged life of lies" is upturned by Maria, the housekeeper in love with Charles, whom she sees as a god. Her desire deludes her into thinking he loves her and she can tame him, and she stops at nothing to make this situation come about.
The tale is flawlessly executed by the cast, amidst subtle staging; vertical wooden boards that rise and fall with wires to show the occasional prop. Similarly sparse is Ian McEwan's libretto, the author writing with his usual economy to send compact ideas and bullets to the heart with the kind of concision most of us can barely muster when buying a bus ticket. Some great jokes too.
Michael Berkeley's score was richly textured and engaging, if not easy on the ears, like most modern classical music. There seemed to be something of a disconnect between the singers and the orchestra, who were rarely completely in concord - perhaps fitting for a form in which all characters are narrating their thoughts, lost in private concerns - if all were unity there would be no drama, and I think this idea has extended into the tonality of the music.
The score became wider in range in the second act, with some interesting moments; the direct quoting of Mozart reminding us on how uncomfortable this music was by comparison, and an excursion into jazz territory with a recurring bass line providing some welcome stability, alongside an evenly-played drum kit. This was followed by an outstanding aria from Maria, who had the best tunes, and she performed a remarkably subtle coda after the finale, ending, like Act One, with a frenetic sextet.
Opera is the stuff of tragedy, death and heartbreak, McEwan's work is peppered with sexual obsession, taboo and passions testing boundaries, and Berkeley regularly explores revenge and loss. The resultant mix is a powerful and dark work, a mapping of sexual and psychological nadirs, a peek into Hell (albeit a realist one), a mud bath in psychic mire. The sound of a heart monitor flatlining merges into the sound of an orchestra tuning up; this is an opera that will linger in the cavernous recesses of the mind.