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Gerald Barry: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (World Stage Premiére of the RTÉ/ENO co-commision), Petra von Kant: Stephanie Friede, Sidonie von Grasenabb: Susan Bickley, Valerie von Kant: Kathryn Harries, Gabriele von Kant: Barbara Hannigan, Karen Thimm: Rebecca von Lipinski, Marlene: Linda Kitchen, Richard Jones (director), André Ridder (conductor), ENO at the Coliseum, London, 16 September, 2005  (AO)


ENO may have a hit on their hands, judging by the audience reaction to this new opera. It's a gamble to start a new season with new music but with this production they may have found a winning formula.  Barry may be Ireland's best-known contemporary composer, but even the programme notes state that “his recent work seems more marginal to the studied ways of new music than ever.”   ENO's sponsorship of Brian Ferneyhough's Shadowtime showed real vision, but was perhaps a “bridge too far”. No such worries with Barry's Petra von Kant: it is modernism made palatable.  The programme continues  “Barry doesn't want to épater les bourgeois or pass a mordant comment on society.  What he wants is to restore the bright colours of the world, the ones the child knows.”

The opera bursts with exuberance.  Its colours are the strident oranges and yellows of the 1970's, “the decade that taste forgot”.  Barry wanted the 70's idiom because it captures the claustrophobic mood of the original play and film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The set and costumes, by Ultz, are brilliant for they capture the 70's with a vengeance – unsubtle garments, reel-to-reel tape-decks, pink telephones. For Fassbinder, the 70's imagery identified Petra von Kant as a symbol of the post-war German economic boom.  She chases material success with a mania, in order to avoid facing deep traumas in her past.  Barry didn't watch the film because he wanted to respond directly to the play on his own terms, so his music does not make much of the political undercurrents. The design reflects his interpretation of the play as a drama of love, alienation and post- modern irony.  Indeed, it seems so universal that it comes as a shock when Marlene puts up bunting that says “Herzlichen Gluckwünsche”,  “Happy Birthday”.  Perhaps Ultz is making a very subtle play on the word “Herz”, to underline Petra's heartbreak.  I loved that touch.

Here are the bare bones of the plot. Petra is a fashion designer who seems to have it all, a winner in a man's world.  This production makes much of her cruelty to her secretary, but the inner Petra is a generous soul who gives her mother money which she can't really spare herself.  Thus she falls hopelessly in love with Karin, a bimbo completely her opposite.  It's as if she's seeking to find what she is not.   Karin goes back to her ex husband and Petra collapses in drunken grief to the horror of her family. Nonetheless, the heartbreak proves a breakthrough, and in the end she understands herself better.  She was right about Marlene, her secretary, who was a slave “because she likes it” - Marlene turns out to have been as crazy for Petra as Petra was for Karin.   In the libretto, there are many nuances to explore – the role of women in society, different forms of love, social hollowness.  Barry pays careful attention to the verbal cadences of the text:  his music reflects the modulations of speech, particularly that of Petra's daughter, who is portrayed in charmingly wobbly high notes which almost fly off key.  When mother and daughter have a moment of closeness, the orchestra falls silent, as if not to intervene.

But Barry's main interest seems to be the fast spaced vigour of the text, rather than its ambivalent undertones.  The bright colours and simplified shapes of 70's design seem to define the music itself.   Loud, harsh brass and percussion dominate.  Motifs are interesting, and repeated like the wallpaper in Petra's bedroom – big, simple figures repeated endlessly without much variation.  Like the wallpaper, the overall effect is definitely striking, and very “modern” as the designs did appear in a world more used to chintz and ormolu.  There are many witty touches, for example, the hint of Germanic brass bands in the passage where there is no text to be sung.

This music could almost have been written with Richard Jones in mind.  It suits his style perfectly.   He carries off the most dramatic visual games with an almost comic book simplicity which fits in with Barry's bright colours and simple shapes.  When Petra wonders what outfit to wear, a light bulb lights up above her head, just like a cartoon “Thinks”. As she waits longingly for Karin to return, her TV set shows a clock, it's face turning – a device straight out of the movies.  If it depicted days, rather than hours, it might be an old fashioned calendar, with leaves falling off. When Petra kisses Karin for the first time the music rises into a crescendo and suddenly the lights go out – another cinematic hint, like cutting to images of surf pounding a beach, or, less appropriately in this case, a train in a tunnel.  The music and visual jokes fitted so well, that the audience loved it.  Some were even uninhibited enough to burst out laughing!

The performances were superb.  Stephanie Freide's Petra is a tour de force and she sings throughout with hardly a break.  Moreover the role calls for acting skills beyond the usual call of duty.  She has to emote her character sympathetically, bringing out depths of characterization without much help from the music.  That Petra comes across as a far more complex personality is in many ways thanks to her portrayal.  Karin Thimm, too, was portrayed by Rebecca von Lipinski with much more discreet intelligence than the feckless Lulu personality might merit.  Ironically, Karin is “common”, as Petra's daughter says, but in real life, von Lipinski has the pedigree!   All five actresses  flesh out  cardboard cut-outs.   Jones fastened on the imagery of mannequins as an allegory for womanhood.  Mannequins are lifeless, no use for anything but displaying clothes for sale.   The emphasis on 70's fashion values thus makes sense, for 70's women were expected to act like shop dummies, “selling” themselves as consumer goods.  All those wigs, false eyelashes, and unflattering clothes turned women into caricatures.  No wonder drag acts love the 70's, for the decade was so unreal.

This opera is very much a joint effort involving performers, director, designer and composer (and all the other behind the scenes people who make it possible).  What Fassbinder would have felt about his play getting the opera bouffe treatment, I don't know.  But on its own terms, this works.  Ferneyhough's Shadowtime will probably be appreciated in generations to come.    But Petra von Kant, at least in this production, will do what opera was originally meant to do: amuse and entertain, with an edge of wit.   And if it brings audiences to ENO and to modern music, all the better.


Anne Ozorio

Pictures: Stephanie Friede (Petra von Kant) / Rebecca von Lipinski (Karin) Photographer: Stephen Vaughan © 2005

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