Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune, whose UK première was at the Royal Opera last week, has received the severest critical panning I can recall for any new opera. It is no masterpiece, but I wonder why it has been rounded on when so many new — not to mention old — pieces with no more going for them, so far as I can tell, get greeted warmly or at least tepidly. Admittedly, it takes an ambitious subject — Fate — and treats it in a largely unpretentious way. But Verdi’s La Forza del Destino takes the same subject and treats it in an utterly preposterous way, and has some dreadful passages of music, yet has survived for a century and a half. Weir may have been unwise to write her own libretto, with its mixture of homeliness and the portentous, but there are plenty worse that opera-goers take in their stride.
What any opera needs, at least, is a reasonably strong narrative thread and some striking musical passages, or to be the work of a composer most of whose operas have these qualities. Weir has written several fairly successful operas, but they have been sufficiently diverse in style and content not to generate a sense that she has a strongly individual and recognisable voice, so that each work can be felt to be adding to a corpus. Without that sense, a relatively anonymous work such as Miss Fortune is bound to be criticised in terms strong enough to be justified only when applied to some of the novelties that ENO has inflicted on us in recent seasons.
The synopsis for Miss Fortune states that ‘the opera explores what it means to be rich or poor, the mysteries of everyday life, and the effects of chance, luck and accidents on human existence’. That is simply not true. The opera is too brief, at one and a half hours, to explore anything much, at most it can be said to present some of these subjects in a highly schematic way. To get us involved to any degree with these issues, Weir needed to create characters, and all we have here are ciphers with names. And possibly the gravest mistake is to personalise Fate, when the only way to prevent the term Fate from vacuity is to leave it as omnipresent and nebulous. Fate is the name people invoke when their lives take a surprising turn for the better or the worse, and that is all there is to it. To have a character singing the role of Fate is to suggest that he/it is responsible for some things and not others.
Weir makes her text all the more dubious by having as the crux of the action a lottery which Tina — Miss Fortune — would win if only one of her numbers were different. Fate takes a hand, time moves briefly backwards, and she has all the numbers right. Then she throws her ticket away. The synopsis ends: ‘Everyone celebrates, watched thoughtfully by Fate.’ He must have wondered why he bothered.
The music is agreeably eclectic, quite unmemorable, and mostly very well performed, and the set is colourful and largely abstract. I found it appealing, but my taste in sets is unreliable. There are also some solid everyday objects, including the equipment of a launderette and a kebab van. Most striking among the performers is a group of breakdancers, though I didn’t see that they added anything except fun and some plausible violence. Emma Bell is Tina, and Jacques Imbrailo is the rich Simon, both make as much of their roles as possible, which turns out to be not much. An admirable cast includes the young tenor Noah Stewart, as Hassan, owner of the looted kebab van. Paul Daniel conducts, Chen Shi-Zheng is the director.
The Royal Academy of Music’s termly offering was Die Zauberflöte, of which I saw the second cast. Musically it was on a distinguished level, major credit being due to the superbly sprung but relaxed conducting of Jane Glover. She kept things moving, but gave the most solemn, awe-inspiring stretches plenty of room. The Priests’ Chorus ‘O Isis und Osiris’ was a transcendent moment. The cast had no weak link, though Thomas Elwin’s Tamino didn’t need to shout. The work was performed in German — one sees why, but the variety of accents, the Queen of the Night’s being especially bizarre, made an odd effect. If only the production, by Stephen Barlow, had been less inane. Set in 1970s California, it opens with Tamino having a bad trip in a club, moves in due course to the Life Improvement Academy, presided over by Sarastro, the kind of youthful proselytiser one dreads finding on the doorstep, and takes in the headquarters of a porn magazine edited by the Queen of the Night. All this makes taking any of the opera seriously almost impossible, though the audience was only too pleased to bellow with laughter whenever possible. Please, RAM, have the courage to be unfashionable.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 24, 2012