From left, Topi Lehtipuu, Christopher Gillett and Scott Hendricks in ‘Frankenstein’
From left, Topi Lehtipuu, Christopher Gillett and Scott Hendricks in ‘Frankenstein’ © B. Uhlig

A visceral roar fills the theatre as the curtain rises. The floor shakes; you feel it in the pit of your stomach. White-clad figures descend on ropes into a vast, icy cavern. Clouds of dry ice gush into the auditorium as a tubular machine, lights flashing, plunges into the abyss, only to rise again, bearing a naked body.

Mark Grey’s Frankenstein opens at La Monnaie with a noise like a rocket-launcher and tremendous promise. Unfortunately, all the surprises are served in the first five minutes, leaving the next two and a half hours to trudge forlornly after them.

Everything about the labelling suggests that Frankenstein had a difficult birth. James Fenton, still credited on Wikipedia as the opera’s librettist, was replaced at some point by Júlia Canosa i Serra, and the slated conductor Leo Hussain by Bassem Akiki; Alex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus is credited with “the original idea” as well as both stage direction and dramaturgy; librettist and composer are also listed as dramaturges.

Whatever actually happened during its gestation, Frankenstein is a misshapen creature, more chamber oratorio than grand opera, awkwardly wordy, clankingly undramatic, full of vague philosophising and stasis.

The action takes place in a futuristic ice age, with the excavation and re-animation of Frankenstein’s monster, who narrates his tale as a series of flashbacks, all enacted in the frigid amphitheatre of his disinterral. So despite all the technological bling and the central Metropolis-style cylinder, all we get, in the end, is a small ensemble of mostly men in 19th-century garb, gesticulating in the most conventionally operatic manner imaginable. La Fura dels Baus, as usual, achieves spectacle but not narrative.

Grey’s score is frenetically busy, the strings constantly scrubbing away at arpeggios in the style of Philip Glass or John Adams. The impressive electronic effects that make the opening so arresting disappear soon afterwards, making a brief return for the final bars, belying the fundamental conservatism of the score. The vocal lines are blandly lyrical, the singers often forced to strain above heavy orchestration, the whole cloyingly tonal and wearying.

Spectacle: 'Frankenstein' is set in a futuristic ice age
Spectacle: 'Frankenstein' is set in a futuristic ice age © B. Uhlig

Though Scott Hendricks’s Frankenstein is placed centre-stage, Topi Lehtipuu, in a fetchingly decaying nude suit complete with prominent rubber private parts, steals the show as the monster; he brings drama, pathos and a sweet lyricism to the role.

Frankenstein performs depressingly poorly on the Bechdel test, with Justine (Hendrickje van Kerckhove) making a fleeting appearance in a cage before being unjustly hanged, and Elizabeth (Eleonore Marguerre) singing only of love and yearning. This is an opera where men talk about men, and we are supposed to believe that it is about humanity. La Monnaie has lavished remakable resources, love and care upon a piece screwed together from the long-dead parts of a once-great medium, and it never fully comes to life.

★★★☆☆

To March 20, lamonnaie.be

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