wed 27/10/2021

Miss Fortune, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Miss Fortune, Royal Opera

Miss Fortune, Royal Opera

Judith Weir's new opera is one big, expensive mistake

Emma Bell as the ill-defined Miss Fortune

I find it hard to square what I know about composer Judith Weir with what happened last night. In one corner lies her 30-year output of songs, choral pieces and operas - as engaging and beguiling an oeuvre as that of any living composer's. I think of her waggish song cycle King Harald's Saga or her playful opera A Night at the Chinese Opera.

And then I think of the UK premiere of Miss Fortune at the Royal Opera last night - the inertness of the music, the superficiality of the story, the platitudes and, most bafflingly, the racism - and I wonder, what has happened to Judith Weir?

If one was to apply the wisdom of this opera, one would put the qualitative slippage down to Fate. That's who's to blame when things go belly up for the eponymous heroine of the opera, Miss Fortune. Why, she seems to cry at the end of Act One, have these six breakdancing black hoodlums wrecked the factory I was so happily working in? Because, Judith Weir's opera muses, shit happens. Fortunes rise. Fortunes fall. Kebab vans rise. Kebab vans fall. Laundrettes rise. Laundrettes fall. She might have extended the logic to herself: composers rise; composers fall.

So much of this opera proceeds as if Enlightenment never happened

This work sees Weir in full compositional freefall. All the characteristic Weir-ian traits - harmonic clarity, melodic and rhythmic accessibility, and folkloric fixations - are here but in bathetic parody. Her libretto (which suggests that life is like a "roller-coaster") must shoulder much of the flak, but so too must her music. None of the many musical references (especially those to Stravinsky's Rake's Progress, to which the opera bears an unflattering resemblance) are convincingly integrated into a larger, more distinct language. Her thematic interests are limited. Her rhythmic and percussion writing - often sluggishly handled by conductor Paul Daniel - is frequently embarrassing.

The garish production from director Chen Shi-Zheng confuses both mind and eye with its abstract floating shapes and neon strips. Worse, attempts to inject life into the lifeless installation through the introduction of six breakdancers descends into jaw-dropping racial typecasting. As Miss Fortune sings of entering the "shadows" and "dark streets" of the real world, she's set upon by six representatives of this rough shadowy place, a gang of bopping black thugs, who go on to destroy the factory she's working for and torch a kebab van she finds herself taking shelter in. Only in opera could ethnic street dancing still so shamelessly be used to connote criminality.

Then again, so much of this opera proceeds as if the Enlightenment never happened that this bout of racism was hardly a surprise. The night offers no psychological development. There's no interior life to the characters. Everything proceeds according to Fate's decree. That's all well and good for a carefully constructed fairy tale, in which there is layer upon layer of meaning and echo, subtext and allusion. But Weir's Miss Fortune is one of the most literal-minded folk tales ever to see the light of day. 

Character is pushed and pulled by the mundanity of the plot and the metaphysical messiness of the costumes and the staging and, as a result, rendered vague and one-dimensional. One of the most baffling roles, the smarmy city boy Simon (excellently sung by Jacques Imbrailo), barely gains even half a dimension in his few moments of small talk with the launderette owner, Donna (a decent Anne-Marie Owens). Yet somehow we're meant to understand and perhaps feel something when he, in the end, wins the girl. Beats me as to how.

Emma Bell (Miss Fortune) makes a decent fist of her maddeningly ill-defined lead role (she seemed as confused as us by what's going on). Some curtain-call slapstick between the bickering Lady and Lord Fortune (Kathryn Harries and Alan Ewing) hinted at what the opera was underneath its earnest veneer: panto. Had we had a little more he's-behind-you, and a bit less in-the-end-we'll-all-be-dead, it might have trundled along with a little more charm. As it was, Miss Fortune came across as one big, expensive mistake.

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