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Gerald Barry – The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
& Pre-performance talk – Gerald Barry in conversation with Sean Doran

English National Opera 20 September 2005

Petra von Kant – Stephanie Friede
Karen Thimm – Rebecca von Lipinski
Marlene – Linda Kitchen
Valerie von Kant – Kathryn Harries
Gabriele von Kant – Barbara Hannigan
Sidonie von Grasenabb – Susan Bickley

ENO Orchestra/André de Ridder
Director – Richard Jones
Designer – Ultz
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherin
Movement Director / Choreographer – Linda Dobell

For ENO to open their 2005-6 season with a new opera by a composer as interesting as Gerald Barry is an event to be welcomed, and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant does not disappointed theatrically.

The libretto is not simply based on Rainer Fassbinder's 1971 play of the same name; it is essentially the complete play. In an open pre-performance discussion with Sean Doran (ENO's Artistic Director & Chief Executive), Gerald Barry explained that it never occurred to him not to set the full text – barring a few words which somewhat irritatingly for him were mysteriously overlooked. He described it as a lean and single minded plot, dealing with one woman in one apartment who falls in love, is rejected and collapses in crisis before finding a period of calm. It covers a huge range of emotions, from tragedy to comedy - the comedy is darkly tinged and the tragedy may appear comic.

Barry went on to describe his intuitive approach to the composition process, building up a bank of music before exploring the various ways in which he might set the text, finally sculpting the music to a perfect fit. His work is tonal using a range of keys some obvious, some invidious. Whilst being a firm believer in taking things at face value, he tries to side step preconceptions and finds himself constantly rediscovering the laws of classical music...

There is an all-female cast of five singers and one mute, revolving around Petra von Kant, a successful fashion designer. On stage throughout the opera is her voiceless assistant Marlene, serving with silent efficiency. She is sinister and omnipresent, a pivotal character in the drama. Next to appear is Petra 's friend Sidonie who introduces Karin the young, vacuous and materialistic model that Petra becomes so besotted with. As the crisis point approaches in Act 4 the arrival of Petra's mother and daughter adds to the tension. Finally they leave, Petra and Marlene remain and calm can be re-established. When Petra's final line “Tell me about your life” is delivered we see the possibility of a new beginning.

Much of the vocal line lies towards the upper end of the register, which combined with the sheer volume and speed of delivery of the text, demands immense concentration. “Driven” is an adjective often applied to Barry's music, but I would prefer to describe it as focused. There is a multi-layered dialogue between words and music; at one moment the instrumentation is spare and lightly applied to allow the words through, at the next there is a strident pulsation of notes, almost as though the orchestra were an extra voice in the cast delivering its own lines of commentary. The result is certainly dynamic, and generates the same excitement that a rapid exchange of dialogue produces in a theatrical play.

The single outsized set, comprising the five rooms of Petra's apartment is built out in front of the stage to bring the action forward to the audience in this large theatre. Above the orchestra pit (the first time I've ever seen the Safety Curtain lowered behind the set) there is also a passeralle which acts as a catwalk for Karin and allows Marlene to circulate throughout the building whilst remaining detached from the action.

The designs are in assertively space age 1970's shapes and colours, and the costumes look totally authentic. Richard Jones's direction is as meticulous and inventive as always, and he makes the most of having a cast whose acting is as accomplished as their singing. Stephanie Friede (Petra) experiencing a whole gamut of emotions, and Rebecca von Lipinski (Karin) petulantly dragging a giant toy kangaroo behind her, are both making ENO debuts and were outstanding. Barbara Hannigan (Gabriela) nicely portrays the mindset of a progressive wunderkind, and made light work of her difficult coloratura passages. All were overshadowed by Linda Kitchen's performance as the mute Marlene, whose final long, soundless shriek brought a chilling close to the evening.

Lastly a word about those controversial surtitles, now installed, and rather high to read from front stalls. A full libretto is printed in the programme; I was lucky enough to have time to read it, after which I could distinguish most of the words. The singing was remarkably clear and the staging more than lucid enough to convey the story line. Under such happy conditions I certainly prefer to maintain contact with the stage, but there is no doubt that surtitles can act as a useful reference point. To give Gerald Barry the last word – 'when you have a text as wonderful as Fassbinder's, it's good to be able to see it'.

Serena Fenwick

Transcript of pre-performance discussion

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant on CD and radio
The Intelligence Park and The Triumph Of Beauty And Deceit on CD (PGW)

RTE's concert recording of Petra's premiere in May [RTE CD 261] is a great success and it is good to have such a radical new opera on disc so soon.

Balance is good and the words are as clear as is reasonably possible. But without the text (supplied in good-sized clear print for comfortable home listening) you'd lose the drift from time to time and, importantly, the rapid cross-purposed exchanges which are one of the reasons Barry thought the play such a gift of a libretto.

It works well in Denis Calandra's translation, and the cast, led by Rayanne Dupuis and Mary Plazas, is excellent. The recording of Barry's visceral score sounds vivid and provides an opportunity to get this astonishing music into your system.

But there is a staggering difference between this concert version and the ENO staging, which we too saw from front stalls where the orchestra sounded oddly muted from its deep pit, but that allowed the voices to come across well. The programme book, with the full text in large print, was a particularly good one, but in my copy the pages fell out as one turned them!

ENO has the brilliant opera singer/actress Linda Kitchen (famous for her WNO Gretel) riveting attention at the Coliseum throughout and 'overshadowing' everyone else in Barry's mute part of the equivocal servant/slave/masochistic lesbian lover Marlene.

That, together with the brilliant work of Richard Jones' production team (Ultz, Sherin & Dobell), makes it imperative that the ENO version be captured on DVD. It will go down as one of the key opera events of 2005, and it was good to hear its enthusiastic reception on the BBC's brilliantly balanced R3 broadcast 1st October. But The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant has to be seen as well as heard!

Barry's operas have not all been so easy as the chamber and orchestral music.  The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant seems the likeliest of the three to date to catch on internationally, largely because the story line of the Fassbinder play which provides its libretto, virtually intact, is straightforward to follow, including the subtle nuances which the audience takes but the characters themselves don't always.

The Intelligence Park
(1981-90) is recognizably by the same composer, but its dislocations and sheer perversity make it a far harder nut to crack and I have given up! 

I walked out of the Almeida Theatre premiere at the interval, having not been able to understand at all what was going on - very noisily - and at home with the newly released discs [NMC D122] the first half hour (two scenes) was enough even with the libretto in front of me. That is far too complex even without the deliberate distortions of vocal delivery introduced throughout. Adrian Jack's introduction to The Intelligence Park might help you, though I can't guarantee it, and the text is printed in type which is so small as to be a strain for me. One admires the skills of Richard Jackson et al and I was particularly impressed by Jeremy Budd, the boy soprano who sets the whole thing going.

It shares with the next one, The Triumph Of Beauty And Deceit (1991-92), an "impenetrable libretto", so complains the writer of a 5-star review who concludes however that "in spite  of all - - you really genuinely do fall in love with this piece as with a lover who is also yourself".

Barry and paradox are never far apart! 

My advice is to try the CDs of his operas in reverse order. Risk buying Petra and I think you'll not be disappointed.  Before purchasing Beauty And Deceit [LARGO5135] check out the sound of the music in the several clips on Amazon. PGW

CD of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant: purchase from www.rte.ie/shop or specialist record shops; it should soon be available through Amazon.

© Peter Grahame Woolf