Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cult Petra movie (1972) distils a claustrophobic atmosphere, the screen saturated with throbbing, emotive colours, through which the human predators languidly stalk each other. It is not a bundle of laughs.
By contrast, Gerald Barry’s new opera, which sets Fassbinder’s text in its entirety, careers along like a charging rhino, the dialogue delivered lickety-split, supported pervasively by aggressive brass in full cry, often doubling the vocal line. It is erotic, exhausting, histrionic, at times hilarious. Or is it?
Director Richard Jones, the cast and the conductor Andre de Ridder, who has the ENO orchestra playing at white heat, made it seem so at the enthralling world premiere. Indeed, Jones’ production is a superlative masterclass in stagecraft, required viewing for those cohorts of unweaned young directors peddling undigested ideas.
Within Ultz’s cool, fashionable interior, he thrillingly choreographs the emotional maelstrom and power games resulting from svelte couturier Petra’s obsession with the callow, exploitative Katrin, from her secretary Marlene’s tormented, masochistic passion for her. Direction, design and lighting (Mimi Jordan Sherrin) are a symbiotic triumph.
Meanwhile Stephanie Friede’s ‘tour de force’ of a Petra commandingly tames vocal lines as vertiginous as volatile temperature charts. So does Barbara Hannigan as Petra’s dysfunctional daughter Gabriele, a deeply disturbing portrayal.
Rebecca von Lipinski’s leggy, faun-like Karin casually deploys killer instincts, Linda Kitchen’s mute Marlene seethes with unrequited passion, while Kathryn Harries and Susan Bickley alarmingly embody Petra’s mother and inquisitive friend Sidonie.
This stunning production renders Barry’s music largely superfluous, which is not to say it is without interest.