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For you is a new opera that brings together the music of composer and BBC Radio 3 presenter Michael Berkeley and Booker-prize winning author Ian McEwan. This gripping tale of love, lust and obsession centers on the composer and prodigious womanizer Charles Frieth (Alan Opie), and the tragic consequences that his selfish actions cause him and those around.
Although essentially dark, there are moments of irony, wit, and humour throughout the opera. Soaring vocal lines, intricate ensemble pieces, and imaginative instrumental writing make this an electrifying work. Masterly performed by Music Theatre Wales, directed by Michael Rafferty. The Opera has had great success from its initial performances in Wales and the Royal Opera House provoking great reviews.
‘Opera’, Berkeley maintains, is uniquely suited as an art form to ‘the exploration of the inner light and darkness of human beings’, for music, more than any other artistic medium, can ‘point up an inner turmoil of realised and frustrated desires’. It is perfect for the issues addressed in Berkeley’s previous operas as well as in McEwan’s novels and stories—how the predicaments that human beings face subsequently colour their lives. In Berkeley’s first opera, Baa Baa Black Sheep (1993), we see Kipling’s blighted childhood experience which was then translated in his adult work into themes of revenge; in his second opera, Jane Eyre (2000), Rochester’s actions as a young man have appalling consequences, not only for the woman upstairs, his mad wife, and for Jane, but also in his own blinding, while in For you, Maria’s obsessive and deluded love leads to tragedy all round. This theme is also at the heart of his next operatic project, McEwan’s novel Atonement, to a libretto by the poet, Craig Raine—another story predicated on a dreadful mistake.
In For you McEwan and Berkeley decided to explore sexual obsession, overweening self-regard and the abuse of power. But it is also about the more subtle gratification that can be obtained through ingratiation and intrigue. Two sources helped fashion McEwan’s impressive and highly effective libretto: Docktor Glass, a novel by the Swede Hjalmar Soderberg, where a doctor, in love with the wife of a patient, abandons his ethical principles, and Leporella, a short story by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig in which a maid, having interpreted her master’s offhand comments as a declaration of love, undertakes a terrible action to, in her mind, free him. In For you, the story of the opera is of a similar calamitous, deluded love, which causes Maria to do something truly horrific for which all the other characters will suffer.
It was important to both creative partners that the opera should have arias, duets and larger ensembles, but which flowed from one to the other rather than as set numbers. The central character, the composer, Charles Frieth, was conceived as a bass/baritone role, although due to the withdrawal of the original singer through illness, the premiere performances (as on this recording) were sung by a baritone, Alan Opie, for whom Berkeley made a number of adjustments. The opera is in two acts in which the action moves forward at a gripping pace. Act 1 introduces the main protagonists, deftly delineating their characters through their music. Once each character is established, the compositional process is essentially monothematic, new ideas being derived organically from what has gone before and during the second act, music from the first is reworked. The vocal writing merges naturalistic recitative and arioso with the set pieces. Each individual has their own leitmotif and orchestral colour; for instance Charles’s down-trodden assistant, Robin, is a light, fussy tenor with busy, humorous music to match.
Berkeley has commented that McEwan’s words naturally suggested musical ideas to him. Among these, three in particular provide important recurring reference points during the opera, the first at the beginning where an orchestra is tuning up; Berkeley decided he wanted this music to be ‘composed’ rather than improvised; it continues seamlessly into the action and subsequently is used as a musical image of chaos and confusion. The second is a melody heard at its fullest as a quasi-Polish folksong sung by Maria in Act 1, Scene 2, a phrase or fragment of which occurs at pivotal moments in the drama. Finally there is a falling two-note phrase, most often in semitones, accompanying the words ‘For you’ or ‘For me’. The orchestra too has a major role in colouring and commenting on the dramatic action and the inner thoughts of the characters. Both acts build to the sextets that conclude them, and these, together with the duets between Simon and Antonia, and Charles’s masterwork, Demonic Aubade, are constructed through the use of passacaglias, albeit ones in which the ground bass lines are deliberately slightly out of phase between the instruments, thus creating a fractious edge to the music. Another aspect that is abundantly apparent is Berkeley’s wide general knowledge of opera: the Act 2 sextet alludes to the final scene in Don Giovanni; the concept of the Polish folksong had its origin in Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr Broucek, whilst the reference to Mozart’s The Magic Flute in Act 2 prompts an appropriate quotation. Indeed the opera is also Mozartian in its portrait of the frailty of human beings.
At the opening of Act 1, the angular, snappy, dissonant music (with augmented 4ths to the fore) of the orchestral introduction establishes the character of Charles—this monster of a man and serial adulterer—whose arrogance, aggressiveness and bullying is all too evident in the music. Later in the opera Charles’s frailty is also revealed. Antonia and Simon are introduced by still, elegiac music synonymous both with the emotional emptiness of her and Charles’s marriage and the early more consonant musical language of her husband in their days of happiness. Through her lyrical, more diatonic music she is established as a strong, dignified woman, who has not succumbed to being unfaithful to her Charles despite his many dalliances. When Simon explains that she needs surgery, her fear is caught by a sinewy ostinato-like phrase in the orchestra, superbly suggestive of the anaesthetic creeping through her veins. Simon’s pent up feelings for Antonia are equally apparent in his proscribed musical line as gradually the music swells into a duet between them of ardent, albeit unspoken love.
Maria, the last principal character takes centre-stage in Scene 3, the unnerving phrase for cor anglais accompanying her first words subtly suggesting her mental instability. This is confirmed in the opening part of the next scene when she reveals her obsessive infatuation for Charles as the music, again with the dark hues of the cor anglais prominent, mirrors her delusion that ‘all his music would be for me’. Shortly after, another aspect of her character is revealed through the ‘Polish’ folksong, which shows a touching softness and the fact that she is literally and metaphorically an outsider (though working from within). She is also cunning, as in Scene 4, when, in an Iago-like economy of the truth, she mentions the word ‘bed’ to Charles, thus putting ideas into his mind which he misinterprets, a passage where the vibraphone is used to sinister effect. Meanwhile the characters of Robin (Charles’s effete musical assistant and would-be composer) and Joan, the horn player who becomes Charles’s latest conquest, are also brought skilfully to life. In the closing sextet, initially to melancholic music the characters express their individual pain and confusion, the voices surging to a resounding chorale-like climax at the words ‘Silence and deceit’, before turning almost hysterical as the music of chaos engulfs them to leave the drama literally up in the air.
As if picking up the threads of the story, Act 2 begins with the orchestra playing the final bars of the previous act. The atmosphere of the sterile, oppressive hospital room with its machines flashing is conjured by pulsing staccato harp and piccolo notes. In some of the most poignant and tender music in the opera, Antonia recalls the first flush of love between her and Charles who, as is clear from the music, is now vulnerable and genuinely fearful of losing her. When Antonia refers to Charles’s early oboe concerto Berkeley quotes a phrase from his own youthful concerto for the instrument—a logical and apt conceit.
During this act Berkeley and McEwan created two sections which are deliberately used to contrast and offset the tension of the main drama. In the second scene Robin sings an insouciant aria, light and airy, to music that Berkeley imagines he might write in comparison to Charles. There is also a catalogue of percussion instruments (another tongue-in-cheek reference to Don Giovanni) in which Charles submits the hapless Robin to a psychological display of humiliation evoked by a menacing, syncopated and jazzy rhythmic accompaniment, which all too vividly presents a further musical manifestation of Charles’s abuse and enjoyment of his power and position.
After the crucial exchange between Maria and Charles when, not only does she think he is urging her to kill Antonia, but that he is proposing marriage, Maria’s lambent aria, accompanied by the sensuous colour of alto flute and harp, aches with bitter-sweet music. Her murder of Antonia is accompanied by the flaying music of chaos. Finally the opera comes full circle when Charles rehearses the work he believes is the summation of his art, Demonic Aubade, in which both McEwan’s words and Berkeley’s music respond to the mystery of artistic creativity. Summoning up all his energies Berkeley composes an aria of impassioned power in which Charles’s hubris is laid bare; the music emerges out of the dark depths of the orchestra and slowly uncoils, rising to two intense climaxes. As the drama reaches its ironic denouement Charles’s vulnerability is revealed again, for with his realisation that Antonia really is dead, he is distraught; his love for her was indeed genuine. He pleads with Maria to explain the truth, but in a masterly stroke, Berkeley sets her words to the music of her previous aria making it abundantly clear that she has him exactly where she wants him—trapped. His tragedy is that he could not help himself; like Don Giovanni he is now in hell and is dragged off in handcuffs. The opera ends with Maria’s sinister triumph as she (quoting the stage directions) ‘nonchalantly and knowingly’ hums the Polish folksong.
Andrew Burn © 2010
At home, Charles’s wife Antonia is visited by her doctor, Simon, a long-standing friend. She is ill and needs further urgent tests, but she is terrified of another general anaesthetic. There is a deep unspoken attraction between them. Unnoticed, Maria, the Frieths’ Polish housekeeper, watches the end of their conversation. Left alone, she reveals her passionate idolisation of Charles and her contempt for Antonia and Simon.
Robin enters. He resents working for Charles and tries ordering some coffee from Maria, but she’s having none of it. She is proud and sings about her homeland with a melody that is a recurring theme in the opera but is here treated like a folk-song.
Charles arrives home in a state of excitement, accompanied by Joan. He has written a 32-bar cadenza for horn to be inserted into his new work, Demonic Aubade, due to be rehearsed tomorrow. Robin will have to stay up all night writing out the parts. Charles flatters Maria, who can barely contain her excitement, and asks her to bring supper for two to his studio. She is all too willing to serve the great man. Charles then asks for a word with her in private. He enquires how Antonia is and becomes disturbed when Maria reveals that Simon has visited the house. She finally declares that the Doctor loves Antonia and leaves Charles alone to reflect on his situation. Jealous but sickened, too, by his own behaviour, Charles decides to change his ways and calls Maria back to witness his promise that Joan will be his last fling. Unfortunately, Maria believes he is making a promise to her. She is almost delirious with delight.
Charles’s Studio. Charles can’t understand why he isn’t able to make love and persuades Joan to try again. Maria bursts in with supper, separating the lovers and tidying the bed around them. She is followed by Robin, who has found a problem with the music he’s been asked to copy, and then by Antonia, with a bag packed for hospital, and closely followed by Simon. Everyone is experiencing confusion and pain—mixed with a degree of self-righteousness.
The Hospital. As Antonia comes round from the operation she remembers the beginnings of her love for Charles. He sits in the shadows listening. He loves her and is full of remorse, and when he tries to convince her of this she reveals how hurt she has been. Charles becomes agitated and accidentally knocks over a monitor, just as the Doctor and nurse arrive. Simon and Charles finally confront each other. As Simon asserts his authority, Charles states his claim over his wife and storms out.
Charles’s studio. Maria and Robin are once again arguing about Charles. Maria declares he is a god amongst men. Just then Charles returns from the hospital and sees that Robin hasn’t finished writing the parts. He dispatches Robin and bemoans the frustration and anguish his faithless marriage has caused, joking that if murder was amongst her household duties he’d send Maria to the hospital! When he goes on to ask if she has ever contemplated marriage her world is turned upside down. She is convinced he is asking her to marry him and starts to imagine a time when he will be hers alone, with the past wiped clean.
The Hospital. Antonia is still weak and Simon warns the staff not to leave Charles alone with her. He too struggles with his own guilt. Antonia wakes up and seeing Simon at her bedside it seems that at long last they can share their love. Simon leaves and as Antonia drifts off to sleep Maria emerges from the shadows, wearing Charles’s coat. To a wild variation of the music of confusion, she turns off Maria’s life support and departs, leaving the coat behind.
The Rehearsal Room, next morning. Charles begins conducting his Demonic Aubade. This is the work he has aspired to all his life. It is his artistic zenith and personal credo, a mixture of vision and hubris. As it reaches its climax Simon arrives, accompanied by two police officers with the coat. Charles is cross about the interruption and can’t believe what they are saying. It just doesn’t make sense. As he is arrested for his wife’s murder he realises what must have happened. He begs Maria to reveal the truth but it is too late.
Now she finally has him all to herself.
Signum Classics © 2010