S&H Opera review

John CASKEN God's Liar Almeida Opera, Almeida at King's Cross, London, July 10 & 14, 2001 (PGW)

Exiled from the Almeida Theatre in Islington during refurbishment, Almeida Opera has found a splendid temporary home, a converted industrial building close to King's Cross Station, which is adaptable, spacious and has attracted large audiences, with a real buzz of excitement.

The 2001 season will be remembered for John Casken's second opera for the Almeida, God's Liar. His Golem (1989) has resonated in my memory for twelve years, during which it has been produced abroad and recorded. God's Liar received divided reviews, this explained maybe by the need to have really studied the concentrated libretto, which should have been included with the programme (preferably in advance, with tickets). It treats Tolstoy's Father Sergius story about the downfall of socially climbing Tsarists Russians, and that is conflated with a modern parallel about the temptations of Hollywood moneys undermining a biographer's idealism. The 19th and 20th Century episodes are alternated with dizzying skill on a vast, split stage, and it was all too easy to miss key phrases and become confused, even though the diction was mainly good. There should certainly be sur-titles when this Co-Production with the Theatre de la Monnaie is shown in Brussels, and this second opportunity for it to be taped for BBC broadcast will hopefully not be lost.

The two male protagonists are well taken by the ever-reliable Omar Ebrahim, who convinces as an officer in the Tsar's Guard who becomes a penitent monk and eventually an exiled vagrant in Siberia, and Jeffrey Lenz as an American academic who goes through his crises of conscience. The women in their lives, catalysts for the progression of the men's stories, are portrayed with brilliant acting versatility and vocal stamina by Anne Bolstad. A chorus of six take a variety of parts in each century, the whole directed with flair by Keith Warner, who shares credit for the libretto with Emma Warner and the composer. The involvement of leading free-lance musicians ensured that the Almeida Ensemble, conducted by Ronald Zollman (with video to ensure he maintained close contact with the singers) gave a vivid account of Casken's rich and well-paced score. God's Liar and its caricatured film obverse, God's Lyre, gained from being seen twice, that allowing for appreciation of more detail, with more attention to spare for relishing the instrumental felicities.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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