Michael BERKELEY (b. 1948)
For You - opera to a libretto by Ian McEwan
Alan Opie - Charles Frieth (baritone); Christopher Lemmings - Simon/Junior Doctor (tenor); Rachel Nicholls - Joan/Nurse/WPC White (soprano); Helen Williams - Antonia/WPC Black (soprano); Jeremy Huw Williams - Simon (baritone); Allison Cook - Maria (mezzo soprano)
The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble/Michael Rafferty
rec. 28, 30 October, 1 November, 2008, The Linbury Studio Theatre, London DDD
SIGNUM SIGCD208 [56:23 + 65:28]

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.

Mark Sealey

A study expanded with music of conviction and compulsion in a felicitous marriage libretto and music.