Kris DEFOORT (b. 1959)
The Woman who walked into doors (2001) [82.31]
Paula Spencer - Jacqueline Blom (actress)
Paula Spencer – Claron McFadden (soprano)
Dreamtime; Prometheus Ensemble/Etienne Siebens
rec. live, Bruges Concertgebouw, 23 September 2006
FUGA LIBERA FUG709 [63.05 + 19.26]

The Woman who walked into doors is an opera by the Dutch composer Kris Defoort. It’s based on the novel by Roddy Doyle with a libretto by Guy Cassiers, Kris Defoort and Marianne Van Kerhoven. Doyle's book tells the story of Paula Spencer who has spent twenty years of marriage being abused by her husband Charlo. The book extensively uses flashbacks and the opera has a similarly flexible approach to structure.

The interesting thing about Defoort's opera is its approach to the drama and the interaction between the characters. The character of Paula Spencer is played by the soprano Claron McFadden and actress Jacqueline Blom. The remaining characters are not sung, instead the dialogue is projected using video. The opera is described as being for actress, soprano and video screen.

This is something of a problem when listening to the piece on CD. In more conventional circumstances a CD can be a limited transcription of a live performance. Here the lack of visuals means that we are deprived of the other characters in the drama. In fact the libretto provides the text not only sung and spoken but also that projected, so that it is possible to follow the full drama from the libretto. But this is, frankly, not quite the same as experiencing the piece in the theatre.

Belgian-born Defoort has a background in jazz and improvisation, both as composer and as performer. His compositional style is eclectic, mixing modernism with a jazz/funk element. This is reflected in the accompaniment which is split between two ensembles, Dreamtime and the Prometheus Ensemble. The latter is a more traditional chamber orchestra and the former more aligned to the jazz-funk element.

The libretto is roughly linear, placed in the present with Paula receiving notice of her husband's death; she had kicked him out the year previously after 18 years of marriage. During the narration we get numerous flashbacks that fill in the gaps, from Paula's childhood and youth, through Charlo's courtship until the revelations in the last act when she finally admits the amount of damage that Charlo caused. The structure is impressively flexible.

Doyle's novel uses the sounds of the 1980s as a soundtrack. Defoort, instead of quoting the music of the period, simply uses the contrasts between his modernist style and the jazz/funk elements. There is also a striking contrast between the two protagonists, as soprano McFadden tends to get rather less of the narrative. Instead she comments on the action. It is actress Blom who is the engine of the narrative. This contrast is emphasised by the fact that McFadden sings with her native American accent whereas Blom uses a rather strong - and perhaps overly stagey - Irish accent.

This works well for the first two acts where the double protagonists manage to evoke the varied nature of Paula's life. Defoort's music mixes the jazz/funk excitement with the edgier modernist elements. These contrast to create an atmospheric score.

I had greater doubts in the final act when the revelation of Charlo's mistreatment of Paula is brought to the fore. Here, we find that in the essential moments Defoort relies more on the actress than the soprano and that his music seems to lack the ability to depict the actual horror. I felt that the piece shied away from real bleakness. At other times the music achieves an angry drama, but at the key point in the drama we are left relying simply on a spoken voice.

A greater problem is the issue of the dialogue from the other characters; reliant on the printed libretto the listener has to keep paying attention to the printed word otherwise the soprano and actress appear, at times, to be indulging in some rather odd extended monologues. Some passages work well just in audio. Other dialogue passages really do need you to pay attention to the rest of the words.

The booklet suggests that Defoort’s music is completely based on the dialogue - both spoken and projected. This creates a dramatically satisfying entity. Whilst the music is fascinating and vivid, there are some passages which simply do not work without the extra visuals.

McFadden and Blom contribute admirable performances, though at times I did wonder about Blom's accent. The two ensembles under Etienne Siebens form far more than just accompaniment and establish a really strong thread to the drama.

The booklet includes the full text, spoken, sung and projected, in English which is the language of the opera. Couple these features with photographs of the original production and articles about Defoort and the opera.

This is a fascinating and compelling piece which I would dearly love to experience in live performance. One question remains: why issue the piece on CD when it would seem to be an obvious candidate for a DVD? The CD inevitably represents a rather dim reflection of the live performance. This strong performance gives us a good idea of Defoort's eclectic musical style and his rather distinctive solution to creating a music-theatre piece from Roddy Doyle's novel.

Robert Hugill

A strong performance …an eclectic musical style and a rather distinctive solution to creating a music-theatre piece.