The Royal Opera’s latest new work is, as its director Katie Mitchell describes it, perhaps more an installation than an opera. Exploring “the fragmentation of the female psyche after sexual violence”, in music by Laura Bowler and words by Laura Lomas, The Blue Woman in some ways recalls New Dark Age, the sequence by female composers that the Royal Opera put on its main stage in October 2020, also directed by Mitchell, with Grant Gee’s videos similarly drawing focus.
Eight women face us within blue walls: four singers in front, four cellists behind. The upper half of the stage is a long screen showing Gee’s film of a ninth woman, played silently by Eve Ponsonby. We see her within the bare walls of an abandoned tower-block flat, or writhing as if trapped in the confines of the screen, or taking a train, stepping down to the riverfront, walking through the city. From the lines of Lomas’s tersely poetic libretto, it seems that she is searching for the person she used to be before trauma hollowed her out. The singers who deliver those lines might be four individuals sharing similar experiences, or four versions of the same person.
Bowler’s score, conducted by Jamie Man, plays with our perceptions. We can see the singers and cellists, but there are other sounds compounding them that seem to come from nowhere, generated by a percussionist, or the voiceover of Lomas’s words – or, mainly, the detailed electronic manipulation of all of the above. The cellists – Louise McMonagle, Su-a Lee, Tamaki Sugimoto and Clare O’Connell – use every possible technique, swooping and swooning and scraping. The singers – Elaine Mitchener, Gweneth Ann Rand, Lucy Schaufer and Rosie Middleton – move from speech to song and back again so fluidly that the notes feel like bright spots of colour on the words. It’s episodic, static, fragmented – yet tensely atmospheric.
Incidentally, the route the woman in the film walks towards the end is the one Sarah Everard was taking as she was abducted, though perhaps only south Londoners will pick that up. With that in mind, Ponsonby’s red hair recalls Patsy Stevenson at the Clapham Common vigil, staring into the camera as the police pin her to the floor. Others will find their own associations, some of them painful. The Blue Woman doesn’t signpost a way to catharsis. But the feeling it leaves is one of defiant resilience – not quite hope, not yet, but not despair either.
• At Royal Opera House, London, until 11 July.