S&H Opera Review

Michael Berkeley Jane Eyre   Music Theatre Wales/Michael Rafferty Linbury Studio (Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) 2 November 2000

Jane Eyre - Natasha Marsh
Mr Rochester - Andrew Slater
Mrs Rochester - Emily Bauer-Jaones
Mrs Fairfax - Beverley Mills
Adèle - Fflur Wyn
Music Theatre Wales, conducted by Michael Rafferty

Nothing airy fairy about Berkeley's Ayre

In the words of Michael Berkeley, 'You need everything going for you in opera, so you may as well start with a bloody good story.' But Berkeley and librettist David Malouf steered clear of producing a mere Hollywood re-run of Jane Eyre, one of the most widely read of the English classics. Instead, they set out to create a concentrated reworking of the story which would distil its suppressed eroticism and explore the 'dark, brilliant sides of our imagination … that we have to rein in'. (This theme has inspired a number of Berkeley's works including his previous opera Baa Baa Black Sheep .)

Jane Eyre is more concentrated than Baa Baa Black Sheep. The spare poetry of Malouf's libretto seemed to the composer to be 'crying out for music to bring it to life'. He duly embarked on a two-act work of a mere 110 minutes, using only five singers and 13 instrumentalists; but the theft of the almost-complete score of Act 1 forced Berkeley to go back and rewrite, resulting in an even tighter score. The work focuses on the central, gothic story at Thornfield, with the madwoman upstairs, omitting Jane's pre-Thornfield years and her exile with the Rivers family, and it starts and finishes with her hearing the voice of Rochester calling her.

Both the music and the staging create restless undertones. For example, the score is full of semitones and tritones, twittering, agitated woodwind, menacing brass and percussion (representing, on one occasion, Jane's beating heart) throughout the opera except for the conclusion. Even when Jane is trying on her wedding veil in Act 2 the lyrical music has disturbing motifs in the bass. Visually, the strange disconcerting effect of the curvy, translucent mirror-glass surrounding centre-stage reflects, yet distorts, the images inside it. The contrast between Jane and her alter ego, Mrs Rochester, is marked by Mrs Rochester's wild, unrestrained movement, her black hair (Jane has golden hair) and the use of darker lighting with a vivid orange glow accompanying her presence, while Jane is lit with brighter, whiter light and is associated with certain white objects such her white bedclothes and her wedding dress and veil.   The role of Mrs Rochester as a force of active female sexuality, feared by Rochester and contrasting with Jane's repressed sexuality is portrayed by a motif of rising and falling cello and double-bass glissandos which emphasise her sensuality over and above her supposed evil (the pre-Freudian angle). While the young, yet worldly, Adèle's obsession with all things Parisian (represented in the music by her diatonic, Poulencian waltz) provides necessary light relief and brings an outside influence to the claustrophobic world of Thornfield, Mrs Rochester parodies the waltz in Act 2 as she dances wildly round the sleeping Jane, minutes before tearing her veil.

Natasha Marsh is a tall, slim Jane with a sweet face and pure, high lyrical voice. She, and indeed all the well-chosen cast, enunciates very clearly, and there is never a hint of voices being drowned by the instruments. In fact, Jane sings some of her lines unaccompanied, in a contemplation of silence and stillness. Mrs Rochester, with a lower, fuller voice, generates noise and chaos; for example, the fire which she starts and which kills her is played on drums and brass.   In the aftermath of the fire a harp and horn melody heralds Jane and Rochester's reunion in a firmly diatonic idiom with rising fifths and falling sixths, contrasting with the more fragmentary manner of most of the work. This rapturous final love scene is slightly ambivalent and is insufficiently expansive, perhaps, to erase the memory of the pervious turmoil and convince us that the grave, remote Rochester, well acted and sung by Andrew Slater in a dark baritone, has finally found redemption in the person of Jane. But, no doubt the ambivalence was intended; after all, Berkeley didn't want to make it too easy for the audience.

Sarah Dunlop

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