The Skating Rink
David Sawer & Rory Mullarkey
Garsington Opera, Wormsley. 14 July 2018
Just days after the world premiere of a new opera (at Grange Park Opera, reviewed here), here is another one, this time The Skating Rink, performed at Garsington Opera, now firmly established as a feature in the spectacular landscape of Wormsley Park. Their new commission was written by David Sawer to a libretto by Rory Mullarkey, based on the novel by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Set in a small seaside town on the Costa Brava in the late 1990s, the story is based around the beautiful young ice skating champion, Nuria, and her relationships first with Remo Moran and then with the obsessive and much older Enrico. Political machinations during the run-up to a local election year provide background intrigue, including such lines, presumably aimed at the well-heeled Garsington audience, as “I’m not a monster / I’m a Socialist” and the repeated refrain of “Fuck this Country/ Fuck the Government”. Getting rid of illegal immigrants runs through the storyline, focussed on an opera singer, Carmen, who has fallen hard times and the young girl Caradad, attractive beneath the shabbiness of her clothes. A large community cast provided further ‘vagrants’ and scene-shifters.
Gaspar, a local poet and an illegal immigrant himself, is at the bottom of a food chain hierarchy and is tasked with evicted Carmen and Caradad from the campsite at which he is the night watchman. He quickly falls for Caradad (pictured below), but she soon goes missing, running off through the audience. His search for her brings him into the murky world of what turns out to be a murder plot, combined with embezzlement, deception, lust for power, and obsession.
In what must be the fastest pick-up ever in opera, Nuria is first attracted by the campsite manager Remo Moran in a scene that moves from their first sight of each other and a whisper in her ear to the post-coital shower in about five seconds. They are spotted on the beach by Enric, a leading local government official, who is immediately attracted to Nuria and steals local funds to build her an ice-skating rink in a deserted mansion. The way that the libretto reflects that curious relationship raises questions of the lengths that an older man will go to attract a very much younger woman and, on this occasion, the loyalty, and eventually love that he gets in return. Audience members with daughters might wonder if this was the most appropriate reflection of inter-generational relationships, but it was key to the plot. Nuria reassures him that her relationship with Remo Moran is “just about sex” which does little to reassure him.
The story is told in three Acts, each reflecting the viewpoint of one of the characters, who drop in and out of role to explain to the audience what is going on. David Sawer’s music creates different moods for the different characters, most obviously at the start with the bombastic and percussive background to Remo Moran as he demands that Gaspar evicted the two woman, who responds with contrasting lyrical music. Some scenes are repeated two or three times as the viewpoint changes and, at the end, the three characters share a coda where Gaspar and Caridad are reunited, Nuria visits Enric in jail (for embezzlement, not murder), and Remo meets Carmen’s on-and-off vagrant lover, Rookie, on the beach. I would be surprised if the final revealing of the murderer would have surprised anybody in the audience, and it did rather emphasise what was a clever, but rather weak plot and libretto.
The award-winning Garsington opera house is a magical space, with translucent walls bringing beams of sunlight onto the stage during the first half, and bringing the landscape into the action, on this occasion with the vagrant tents continuing off-stage and into the nearby gardens. After the long dinner interval, the space turns into an almost internal space, although reflection on the side walls expands the wide stage beyond the walls into the darkness. Garry Walker conducted the house orchestra in what must have been a tricky score to master – we are used to hearing players practising the tricky bits in the pit, but this was the first time I have seen a conductor practicing his beats in the pit before the end of the long interval. David Sawer’s multi-layered score was impressive, with only a couple of possible derivative moments: a Charles Ives moment when a marching band arrives out of time with the orchestra (aided by a second conductor off-stage) and a brief burst of James MacMillan in some period vocal ornaments. The stage director and designer was Stewart Laing, making effective use of the very wide stage where all is revealed to the audience.
The singing was excellent, with notable contributions from Sam Furness as Gaspar, Ben Edquist as Remo, Grant Doyle as Enric, Claire Wild as Caridad, Susan Bickley as Carman the opera singer, and Lauren Zolezzi as Nuria, matched by her lookalike ice skating double, Alice Poggio. Louise Winter was the local mayor, and Alan Oke was Rookie. There were some lovely bits of acting, not least pretending to slip and slide on the ‘ice’, and the scene between Nuria and Remo on the beach with their coordinated little jumps back from the waves.
Although the plot line and libretto is not the finest in all opera, the music and the concept suggests that it will be staged again.