For You was commissioned by Music Theatre Wales; they
premiered it in association with the Royal Opera House as part
of the ROH2 programme in the Linbury Studio Theatre on 28 October
of that year under Michael Rafferty. The opera - in two acts
- attests to artistic principles common to Michael Berkeley
and Ian McEwan, who have known each other for thirty years.
While the latter is drawn to Berkeley's lyricism and expressionistic
emotion, the former admires McEwan's economy in writing. Collaboration
over an opera libretto seemed a natural move, especially after
their success together with the oratorio, Or
Shall We Die? in 1982.
For You, which lasts about two hours, heads in the same
direction as many of McEwan's novels. They examine the ways
in which we handle difficulties, turmoil and desires, contradictions,
suffering and obsession; and how these shape our lives. The
opera concentrates on sexual obsession (chiefly between Maria
and Charles; though everyone else to some extent), self-regard
and on the abuse of power. Its structure reflects the subject
matter: musical development occurs in a linear, mono-thematic
way … the material for one scene evolves into that for the next.
The characters are first introduced, their nature established
and their interactions exposed without convolution. Similarly,
the arias, duets and ensemble singing seem to float into one
another naturally - as do conversations in life. There are few
or no 'set-pieces'. But neither is the flow of the music or
of the drama disjointed. The enunciation of the singers on this
recording adds to this experience of transparency - yet it's
transparency to a purpose.
The central character, the composer Charles Frieth, was originally
a bass/baritone role. But the withdrawal of the intended singer
obliged Berkeley to adapt it for the baritone, Alan Opie. In
common with the other singers, Opie and Allison Cook (Maria)
give credible, perceptive and wholly enjoyable performances.
The interplay of power and love, resentment and love, regret
and love, self-assertion and love all imply a somewhat formalistic
treatment of the theme. The 'moments' at which Maria misinterprets
first Charles' apparent promise to her in the first act; then
his question as to whether Maria has ever contemplated marriage
need to be magnified beyond the time they can ever take up on
stage in order for them to work convincingly.
So there is a welcome lack of rhetoric in Berkeley's setting.
Nor does he stretch the music to attempt character study, which
would not be convincing either in such a context. The actually
very persuasive amalgam which results is completely in keeping
with McEwan's direct and somewhat sombre aesthetic.
The music is tonal with moments of true lyricism - not least
the folksong-like melody which closely identifies Maria and
her Polish ancestry. The ensemble passages - like that at the
end of the first act - are spectacularly lyrical, without ever
veering into the 'syrupy'. Full-bodied and memorable.
The booklet contains useful essays on the collaboration and
its wider musical and textual context, a synopsis and the plain
text as well as performers' bios and some photos. The acoustic
is clear and has plenty of atmosphere. It goes without saying
that there is no other recording of For You. This one,
however, does the work full justice and can be acquired by enthusiasts
of contemporary opera and Berkeley's writing alike.