Michael Tanner

Identity crisis | 21 January 2009

Skin Deep<br /> Opera North Verdi&rsquo;s Requiem<br /> Barbican

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Skin Deep

Opera North

Verdi’s Requiem


It takes a brave person, or more likely couple, to attempt an operetta which effectively satirises contemporary fads, and the more obvious the target the more difficult to pull off the satire with the requisite degree of scathingness. David Sawer and Armando Iannucci have taken cosmetic surgery, and while they are about it have intelligently enlarged the matter to prolonging rejuvenated lives (this is a co-commission of Opera North, the Bregenz Festival and the Royal Danish Opera). Skin Deep is set, for the first two acts, in the Swiss Alps, and concerns the practices of Dr Needlemeier, so I take it that the reference is to Dr Niehans, who injected many distinguished patients with sheep’s testicles, among them Pius XII, Churchill and Somerset Maugham, who attended his clinic in Clarens. It’s not a good sign that a, or the, central joke of Skin Deep involves losing a testicle, a subject which used to be heavily recruited to raise laughs, but lost its fertility in that respect some decades ago. One of the main characters is called Luke Pollock, so since the text rhymes I was anxious: and Mark Stone, the glamorous baritone who plays the Hollywood star Luke, is tricked into becoming a monorchidist, and later a small brown object is found which occasions much merriment as he sticks it down his boxers. You don’t believe it? Well, don’t go and see for yourself, because you will be subjected to a whole evening on that level, devoid, furthermore, of the least musical interest. That Richard Farnes should be conducting this when we hear him in so few major operas is unbearable. The only enlivening aspects are the sets of Stewart Laing and the direction of Richard Jones. Endlessly trundled-in trollies on which operations are performed, to the background of avalanches or ‘Hollywood’, are Jones’s home territory, and of course in dealing with plastic surgery there are bound to be some effects of a mildly emetic kind.

One of the troubles is that the issue of retaining youthful appearance, and even more of extending life by implants, is a serious enough one to merit a major satire, if that’s the way it’s going to be handled; and that is emphatically not what it gets here. The convoluted plot involves people having their appearance changed so that identities are confused. There is so much plot that there isn’t a lot of room for subject-matter. Keeping up with what is going on, and the machinery that is being pushed around, is concentration-demanding to the point where for long stretches I was happily almost unaware of the music, which is in any case so repetitive and thin in substance, while lacking any memorable tunes, that the work would not only be more verbally intelligible but agreeably shorter if it were omitted. There is a lot of talent on the stage, the dialogue is delivered crisply, the many fairly elaborate visual gags work smoothly. But even the Opera North stalwarts who laughed for the first half an hour gave up on the show and it was a glum audience who gave the performers a warm reception at the end.

What a contrast with Verdi’s Requiem, which I attended in the second of two performances given by the London Symphony Orchestra under Colin Davis. Though the great Russian mezzo Larissa Diadkova was too ill to sing — this is the time of year when it is just not worth going to an opera for any particular performer — her place was adequately taken by Karen Cargill, though not so impressively as to leave one with the impression that the contralto role is the major one among the soloists, which is how I usually feel. On this occasion that was very much the soprano part, taken with supreme intensity and fullness of voice by Christine Brewer, now a great heroic soprano. The male soloists were a decent pair. The chorus was stunning, whether in whispered terror or in unrestrained depiction of the Last Judgment. This is music which brings out all the wildness in Davis’s temperament, and only a performance I went to under Muti 30 years ago has had a comparable impact on me in the concert hall. The endlessly re-raised question about the status of the Requiem seems to me pointless. It is, above all, tremendous drama, not meditation: its subject is enacted, and it is, undeniably, more thrilling than it is terrifying. One looks at Michaelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’ and recoils in horror at the vividness of the presentation of a barbaric central teaching of Christianity. One listens to — and watches — Verdi’s Requiem and is shaken and excited by the immediacy with which the composer renders for us the feeling we have when we realise that we are due, quite soon, for obliteration. There is, as one might say, nothing to fear but nothingness itself, and no one has written a work on this text which makes the point with comparable force.