For You is a new opera, written for Music Theatre Wales (MTW) by Michael Berkeley with libretto by Ian McEwan. Although I’ve been to a fair few productions of Verdi, Mozart and the like, my knowledge and experience of contemporary opera is virtually nil, so I decided to go to the pre-performance talk, which helped. The director, Michael McCarthy, talked about composer Michael Berkeley’s previous operas, Baa Baa Black Sheep, about Rudyard Kipling, and Jane Eyre, and discussed how the themes of darker emotions fed into For You. Wanting to perform something “new-minted”, as it were, and being interested in destructive passion as a driving force, MTW approached Ian McEwan, who agreed to write the libretto but with the proviso that there were to be “no effing fairytales”!
The plot was inspired by two stories, Leporella by Stefan Zweig, and Soderberg’s Dr Glas, both of which feature in fractured ways in the opera, and which concentrate on obsession and unrequited love which works well in opera. McEwan, with his tendency to write about the here and now in a realistic manner, and with an ability to explore the darker side of human emotion, worked with Berkeley to produce an opera full of highly dramatic moments and with plenty of twists. McCarthy talked about the idea of tuning up as a recurring issue in the opera, and also pointed out a particular motif in which a few bars are repeated throughout and represent a moment of truth, which is often uncomfortable (I was pleased to be able to trace this as I watched it). Yet this is also an opera based on the model of Mozart, with what Berkeley called “the full train-set” – arias, duets, sextets, etc, which is unusual in modern opera. Berkeley, as the godson of Benjamin Britten, acknowledges his musical heritage and works with it well.
The opera tells of Charles Frieth, a composer at the end of his career, who is unpleasant to all, ignores his wife and is a serial adulterer. His wife Antonia, meanwhile, is ill, and forming a relationship with her doctor. Their Polish maid, Maria, who is both inside their home and a literal outsider in other ways, forms a secret passion for Charles, and it is this obsession and her wilful misunderstanding of events which causes tragedy. The plot keeps it going – McCarthy describes For You as a “text-led opera”, and certainly McEwan’s libretto sparkles, but it is the synthesis of music and text which creates drama in a unique way. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen before, but the time flew by and the characters and the music are totally absorbing, with some lovely arias.