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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.

Gerald Barry explained, in an open pre-performance discussion with Sean Doran (ENO's Artistic Director & Chief Executive), 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

Photo: Stephen Vaughan; others on TheOperaCritic

© Peter Grahame Woolf