I have a suspicion that, when we say a piece of art is “powerful”, it often means that we enjoyed it less than we feel we ought to have. What else can you say, when the subject-matter is unarguably important, the treatment unimpeachably serious and sensitive, without trampling on good intentions, on sincerity and conviction? So, for the socially or morally squeamish, let’s just say that Laura Bowler and Laura Lomas’s new chamber opera The Blue Woman is “powerful”, and leave it at that.
The thing is though, it’s not. The most affecting moment in the one-hour, four-singer show – a co-production between the Royal Opera and Britten Pears Arts – that explores the psychological aftermath of rape is a statistic in the programme. “1 in 5 women have been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult”. There’s your gut-punch, your climax, your big reveal. Where do you go from there?
For years, we’ve been sensationalising sexual violence against women, cannibalising it for second-rate Saturday-night television dramas. The addition of an unscripted rape to a Royal Opera production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell in 2015 provoked boos and headlines. But if we draw a tasteful veil over everything except purest emotion, we lose more than just the voyeurs: we lose our foothold in narrative, tension, arc. There’s no missing the rage that mutters and shrieks and grunts (and only rarely sings) from The Blue Woman. It may be true, but that’s not necessarily theatre.
Playwright Lomas, whose impressive CV includes everyone from Radio 4 to the National Theatre, has produced a lyrical, freeform libretto: terse in the right places, but full of whorls of repeated imagery and ideas. She finds a strange urban beauty in the world of broken glass and bleach, concrete and trains that her four unnamed women inhabit. But while on the page we see monologues and ensembles, a tense confrontation at the front desk of a police station, on the stage there’s very little differentiation.
Composer Laura Bowler scores the text for four female voices and four solo cellos (Pullman-style Daemons? Aggressors? Inner voices?) who go through the full gamut of extended techniques, from scrubbing pitchless sound right up over the bridge to stroking soft flutters with a loose wire on the strings. Electronics smudge and blur the palette, while percussion keeps us peremptorily on track, marking time in this meditative blur of space and experience. The unusual instrumentation recalls Philip Venables’s opera Denis & Katya. But where Venables finds vast and varied spaces in the textures of his opera, Bowler closes them down to a suffocating uniformity.
Voices – experimental vocalist Elaine Mitchener, mezzos Lucy Schuafer and Rosie Middleton and soprano Gweneth Ann Rand – sit on top of it. The vocal lines are oddly, deliberately inert. They may leap and chatter, but they do so while drained of emotion and expression. That most of the excellent cast are criminally under-used (Bowler prefers electronic loops and echoes to using the artists standing silently by) only adds to the sense of arm’s-length disassociation. These aren’t singers so much as singing bodies.
Director Katie Mitchell picks this up in a staging that’s cold to the point of numbness. Do we gain anything from the live experience of four performers facing outwards in a row in a blue-flooded box? They stand, they sit, they take a single step forwards, but otherwise they simply stare and utter: no interaction, no reaction, no progression.
Above their heads – the real action – a film plays throughout. A young woman (Eve Ponsonby) wakes in an abandoned flat, wanders the streets of London looking anxiously over her shoulder, writhes in a lightbox coffin. It looks an awful lot like all those TV dramas we’re all now too sensitive to enjoy.
At the Linbury until July 11. Tickets (returns only): 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk
Also at Snape Maltings on September 8 and 9 (booking opens later in July). Tickets and details: brittenpearsarts.org