Whenever I see a new opera, I play a game. I simply ignore entirely the programme notes and synopsis. Often, this little bit of fun allows me to recapture the excitement of audience members past. To witness a new work in all its glory, experience the plot twists and turns, the text, and the music in the one massive thrust that is live performance, all for the first time, is an indisputable joy. Unfortunately, Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune (or, Achterbahn, as it’s known in Austria) sadly did not deliver this pleasing experience at its UK première.
The opera is based on a Sicilian folktale; it follows the young Tina, who leaves the comforts provided by her rich parents for the struggles of the real world. Tina is thwarted repeatedly in each of her menial jobs by Fate and his gang (of breakdancers) until they come to an uneasy truce. With Fate’s subtle help, Tina wins the lottery after traveling through time, but gives up the winnings to the poor masses and marries the rich Simon.
Aesthetically, the production (co-produced with the always phenomenal though esoteric Bregenz Festival) is incredible. The action onstage takes place in a cold, urban, and industrial environment, and its versatile and creative sets are stunningly lit throughout. One feels as though they are inside a lucid dream as the massive sets twist and turn, morphing into increasingly vague objects. The experience is akin to what I’d imagine it’s like to live within a surrealist work of art. The production team deserves enormous accolades for creating a truly creative environment. Alas, if only they had had more to work with!
The music can indeed be described as colorful; one hears hints of Debussy rather than Berg. Not surprisingly, rhythm is the music’s main attraction, and the color rides on its successful execution. Paul Daniel separated the complex textures very well and seamlessly wove together what was undoubtedly a difficult musical tapestry. However, there was significantly more to admire about the orchestral writing than there was the vocal writing. If fact, it seemed as though all the voice parts could’ve been replaced by orchestral instruments without any noticeable loss.
The text is banal in the extreme and does nothing to approach even the basic tenants of drama, while the music does little except provide a vapid accompaniment to the singers. The characters are underdeveloped and two-dimensional; there is very little conflict (if any, depending on your perspective); and there is certainly no critical message to be gleaned from this work that cannot be understood simply by reading today’s front pages (which might have been perfectly fine, had it been the least bit entertaining).
Emma Bell has a fantastic voice and a bold demeanor, but her diction was poor, perhaps not her fault. It should be mentioned, however, that vocally the entire enterprise would’ve been a disaster without her. Andrew Watts was a tepidly scary Fate, and was at times comical. Noah Stewart, as Hassan, was a breath of fresh air; his beautiful tenor soared above the rest with heartfelt lyricism. Anne-Marie Owens was equally good, her dark hues providing robustness to the overall texture. Jacques Imbrailo was very charming as Simon, however briefly his character was onstage.
Let’s all hope the fortune of the Royal Opera changes, and quickly.
Credits: Bill Cooper/ROH