The two one-act operas presented by Shadwell Opera boast many obvious similarities: Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Mark Anthony Turnage’s Twice Through the Heart are monodramas featuring a tormented female protagonist; both operas have an excoriating libretto by a woman with a musical score by a man.
Erwartung (Expectation) packs more angst and anguish into its 30 minutes than many operas manage in two hours. The literal story is of a woman who wanders through a moonlit forest in search of her unfaithful lover and comes upon his dead body, but there are many psychological strata below. These are successfully unearthed by the mesmerising soprano Madeleine Pierard, ably assisted by a non-speaking Simeon John-Wake as her lover, alive and dead.
If Erwartung, from 1909, is the quintessence of Expressionism, Twice Through the Heart (1994-96) is more Impressionist, with vignettes by poet Jackie Kay examining the thoughts of a woman who stabbed her abusive husband to death. Kate Howden brings much power to bear on the role’s dramatic and vocal demands, but placed against a masterpiece like the Erwartung, the limitations of Turnage’s musical ideas are all too evident.
At the Hackney Showroom, the orchestra, excellently directed by Finnegan Downie Dear, takes up one-third of the room, while the rubber gravel coated stage occupies a much smaller area, raising fears that the performers might fall into the audience.
Shadwell Opera deserves praise for its innovative programming and ideas, including artist Sergei Zinchuk’s post-interval ‘intervention’ guiding the audience in a spontaneous construction project with plywood sticks.