A Crime Thriller Opera

Music by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, libretto by Campaspe Lloyd-Jacob

Gray’s Inn was honoured to host the first performance of Bowers-Broadbent’s fourth opera, staged in Hall, not just in the round, but in most  parts of the Hall, often simultaneously.  The story, based on real events, involves a drugs deal set up by the anti-heroine Kirsty, apparently to impress good-looking Karl.  The other party to the deal is Jeb, not her cousin as she tells Karl, but someone she met in a club.  He dupes Karl who, when he finds the money to be fake, holds Kirsty hostage while her mother, Jade, tries to raise the money.  Wisely, Jade has called the police who eventually track down the couple.  Karl, who no longer has the drugs or the money, is charged with kidnap, blackmail and, most resented by him, with rape. At the trial Kirsty breaks down, tries to get the rape charge withdrawn  and flees from the court with her mother. This does not save Karl who emerges as the victim of  cruel mischance.

Written as a chamber opera the band, led by Damian Falkowski, comprised four  strings, including double bass, four  woodwind, two brass, bass guitar and jazz drums.  An impressive line-up of singers was led by two Australians, soprano Lexi Hutton as Kirsty and tenor Christopher Diffey as Karl, with our own Deborah Davison singing mezzo soprano as Jade.  Michel Kallipetis, baritone, was the Judge and Roger Eastman led a chorus of male prisoners. Those familiar with earlier Bowers-Broadbent scores will have found this more polyphonic, yet definitely more catchy than his other works.  There were no big tunes but the music, reminiscent of both Britten and Sondheim, was carried along by melodic fragments which, like Wagnerian leitmotifs, come back to mind creating an aural coherence. And there were constantly varying rhythms and timings including jazz breaks at strategic points in the story, all adding to the tension and surely a nightmare for any lesser conductor than the composer himself!

The first half ran for almost 90 minutes, longer than the whole  of his third opera, the Last Man.  If a modest tightening up of the production  might be suggested, we thought the last scene in the hotel bedroom, which finally develops into a Bonny and Clyde reconciliation event (the alleged rape) was too slow in its lead up.  It is followed by the dramatic police entry which makes a satisfying first half closer.  The second Act is much shorter, commencing with  a well executed prisoners’ chorus, not at all in Beethovenian mode, but set to an angular rag-time to the line “We’re so sorry that we’re  here”!  As the trial comes to a climax, there are passionate exchanges between Kirsty and Jade: “I love him” --  “Think what he did”!  And the work ends in a polyphonic crescendo as Karl is sent down and attacked by fellow prisoners for the rape of which he is innocent.

For  the singing, special mention should be made of Karl’s dramatic outburst on discovering the money to be fake, matched throughout by Kirsty’s fine soprano.  A particularly poignant moment was Jade’s number on discovering that her daughter was being held to ransom.  And all three singers matched their vocal skills with real acting ability, in the case of Deborah Davison reflecting her wide experience on the ENO stage.  Altogether it was a triumph for the composer, the librettist and for the Inn in having the courage to stage such an event.  New contemporary opera has a habit of first performances being also the last for a substantial period of time; but The Face is surely an outstanding piece which will taken up by others interested in new and fresh ideas.  It certainly deserves to be heard by a much wider audience.     


John Uff