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Barry's orchestral accompaniment is rich and vigorous; the orchestra has a life of its own commenting on the action and subverting it, sometimes hilariously. Unfortunately Barry does not seem to have invested so much love and attention on the vocal lines which take the form of a constant, high-speed parlando. I did not find this particularly expressive and, given the speed and the vibrancy of the orchestra, the words were very difficult to hear. The audience tended to laugh at the jokes when they read them on the surtitles. It was almost as if Barry wants us to explore the characters' emotions solely via the orchestra. The opera opens with music that is largely up-beat, fast and up front. Typically the adjective driven is used in connection with Barry's music. But this means that when Petra has her breakdown there seemed to be nowhere to go musically.

Petra is a truly exasperating character, everyone around can see the crash coming except her; but Barry's opera never succeeds in making me love her or care for her. Stephanie Friede's performance however is towering; on stage throughout and having to deliver a torrent of words, she is truly to be congratulated. As her lover Karen, Rebecca von Lipinski is memorable and looks very elegant in all the fashion creations that she has to wear. Susan Bickley looks remarkably dowdy as Petra's friend Sidonie. Barbara Hannigan, in the role of Petra's daughter, catches the girl's neurotic edge and copes brilliantly with the tricky coloratura of her vocal line. In the small but important role of Petra's mother, Kathryn Harries makes a strong impression despite looking unrecognisable in a silver-grey wig.

The audience at the first night was disappointingly small but a number were very vocally supportive at the end. I do hope that word of mouth helps ENO build an audience for the opera, though I honestly can't say that it is an experience that I strongly recommend. But at least the opera did make me curious to see Fassbinder's film.

Copyright © 20 September 2005 Robert Hugill, London UK


Gerald Barry's new opera Petra von Kant continues at English National Opera until 7 October 2005, with performances 20, 23 and 29 September and 1, 4 and 7 October, all 7.30pm at the London Coliseum. The performance on 29 September is sign-language interpreted, and there's a pre-performance interview with Gerald Barry on 20 September. The 1 October performance will be broadcast and webcast live on BBC Radio 3.

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