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Had Sarah Kane written 4.48 Psychosis with the intention of turning it into an opera, she could hardly have served her purpose better. Lyrical, violent and emotionally distilled, this 1999 play profiles clinical depression with an unflinching directness. The result is almost music in words. Yet Kane, who hanged herself shortly after completing the work, did not want it adapted into other mediums. For 15 years after her suicide, no composer touched it.
So Philip Venables, the first composer who has, is in a pressurised position. His new opera — a collaboration between the Royal Opera House and the Guildhall School of Music, where he is doctoral composer-in-residence — bends over backwards to preserve the spirit of Kane’s text. As in the play, there is little sense of narrative, or characters’ identities, or anything that would keep us grounded. Six identically costumed female singers work as what Venables calls “a hive mind”, sharing the parts of the therapist and the patient, who descends into suicidal depression. Meanwhile Kane’s text is spoken, sung and projected on screens: it seems to emanate from everywhere.
But Venables’ achievement is bigger than that. He manages to enhance Kane’s groundbreaking format with his own unbuttoned imagination. His score lurches between chattering polyphony, sounds of sawing wood, and post-romantic arias, spiced up with eerie violin shrieks. In the exchanges between patient and therapist, two percussionists thrash out rhythmic speech patterns as the text appears on screens beneath them. Then, when the din fades away, we’re left with the indifferent tinkle of elevator music. It’s unhinged and chilling, albeit laced with Kane’s trademark humour. Most of all, it is dizzyingly colourful.
Ted Huffman’s production does well to keep things simple, locating the action in a whiter-than-white hospital room. The singers are similarly blank canvases; if anything, the Chroma ensemble instrumentalists, under Richard Baker, play more of a starring role. But soprano Gweneth-Ann Rand supplies the production’s most disturbing images. We see her screaming in agony. We see her choking in a panic attack. Finally we see her gazing at a noose. Then lights out.
To May 28, lyric.co.uk