It’s not very often that you hear and seen an opera in which you worry about (or care) whodunnit. Even Nicol Muhly’s (I thought splendid) Marnie, which had its world première in London last year, and was derived from the suspenseful Hitchcock film, we didn’t so much worry about who did what, as about Marnie’s weird character. But David Sawer and Rory Mullarkey’s The Skating Rink, based on the novel by Roberto Bolaño, which has just had its world première at Garsington Opera, is a genuine opera whodunnit. Though I guessed the identity of the murderer of the clapped-out opera singer, Carmen (sung and acted with utter brilliance by Susan Bickley), I was still breathlessly awaiting confirmation of my hunch until the last moments of the piece.
And what a piece it is. Sawer’s score is full of variety and musical interest, with everything from karaoke to a proper aria or two; Mullarkey’s libretto never calls attention to itself – the highest praise I can bestow upon dialogue that is both in contemporary language and has a plot to convey. The director and designer, Stewart Laing, has done wonders with the limited, but necessarily intimate Garsington stage – and no praise is too high, or even sufficient, for the movement director, Sarah Fahie. She has an enormous number of supers to manoeuvre about the stage, as well as a genuine skater, the terrific Alice Poggio. I don’t know how it was done (my wife thinks the skate blades were really rollers), but she whirls about the stage executing axels, lutzes, salchows and all the other mysterious items of ice skating vocabulary.
The smaller than usual Garsington Opera Orchestra (that I couldn’t quite see from my wonderful seats), was augmented by a Chilean charango (of the ukulele family, I believe) and a guitar, but some of the most thrilling moments were for solo harp and pizzicato strings. Garry Walker’s conducting made Sawer’s score come to life, with film-music-like passages of suspense and nervousness, along with some cherish-able lyric moments.
Stewart Laing’s ingenious sets incorporate a see-through cube of a room, which green uniformed attendants move, gliding about the stage; the central ice rink (however that is managed); and a huge Ian-Davenport-like vertically striped curtain, which covers the whole of the backstage, and constantly makes you wonder what’s going on behind it. Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting add to the enigma.
Mullarkey has structured the narrative, Rashamon-fashion, so that we see some of the same events from different viewpoints of the actors in them. I haven’t read the Bolaño novel, but gather from Chris Andrews’ very good programme essay, and Fiona Maddock’s superb conversation with the composer and librettist (also in the programme), that the libretto is faithful to the novel in this regard.
The plot is blessedly uncomplicated. In a tourist-dependent town on the Costa Brava, Nuria (Lauren Zolezzi), a figure skater with Olympic ambitions, has her funding stopped abruptly. Enric (Grant Doyle, who heroically took over the role on short notice), a civil servant obsessed with her, embezzles public money to build Nuria an ice rink, on which to practice, in a ruined, deserted palacio. Carmen, the ex-opera singer, and her slightly deranged, knife-toting, young woman friend, Caridad (Clare Wild), have been evicted from their squat in a local camping site, where Gaspar (Sam Furness) the illegal emigrant night watchman has fallen in love with Caridad. Gaspar is obliged to carry out the eviction by the chum who’s given him the job, Remo (sexy, sometimes shirtless Ben Edquist), the camp site’s manager, who is sleeping with Nuria. Meanwhile, Remo is actually being leaned on by the public official Enric, and he in turn is having his arm twisted by the corrupt Socialist mayor, Pilar (a fine comic performance by Louise Winter). Topping off the whole sorry mess is Carmen’s new lover, the chronically unemployed Rookie (a bravura turn by Alan Oke). Carmen is found in a puddle of blood on the skating ring: who murdered her? You’ll get no spoiler from me.
This was an incredibly brave commission by Garsington Opera. Though the words “noir” and “box set” will spring to the mind of TV drama fans, I don’t believe any other opera company had bought this production. It can’t be long before one does, as The Skating Rink must surely have many future stagings to come.