Whether by design or accident this latest “double” in the Royal Opera’s Operashots project hit us with the most compelling of juxtapositions. Both composers – Stewart Copeland and Oscar winner Anne Dudley – hailed latterly from the movies but by no means exclusively so: she was a founder member of Art of Noise, he was the drummer of The Police. But both of them took to the stage with an innate sense of what music theatre needs to do and both found a way in that was true to their own distinctive sensibilities and no one else’s.
Copeland’s second shot at Edgar Allan Poe – The Tell-Tale Heart – took Victorian melodrama as his lead. In Jonathan Moore’s convulsive “silent movie” staging (all attitude and louring shadows) Soutra Gilmour’s design turned the “scene of the crime” into a grubby music hall stage, hooded footlights and all. Through Richard Suart’s white faced, shock-headed, protagonist Edgar (who else?) and his inner-self Alan (Philip Sheffield) Copeland shrewdly blurred the boundaries between speech and song either doubling or echoing Edgar’s tortuous journey to self-incrimination with the shrill operatic protestations of two nosy neighbours (Eileen Hulse and Fiona Kimm) creepily visible through the walls of the murder room.
Suart’s sharp and insinuating enunciation occasionally took the vocal line into sung notes and phrases but mostly Copeland perpetuated the stentorian tone of melodrama underscoring it with a febrile piano and percussion led combo whose louche jazz inflections accentuated the sleaziness whilst slightly wrong-footing us musically. Assorted glissandi in strings and timpani only added to the queasiness – and when, at last, Edgar ripped the victim’s heart from beneath the floorboards the method really did descend into madness.
So just as Stewart Copeland didn’t strive to sound like Benjamin Britten so Anne Dudley wasn’t about to subvert her natural way with flowing lyricism and a sharp wit. There is nothing harder to write than comedy and armed with Terry Jones’ punning libretto for The Doctor’s Tale she didn’t just home in on the comedic absurdity of the popular general practitioner threatened with being “struck off” (in more ways than one) because he’s a dog but rather sought to uncover the charm and pathos that might counterbalance the profusion of references to “cat scans” and the Isle of Dogs.
Jones gave Dudley the means to do that, opening with a trio of smitten patients extolling Doctor Scout (Darren Abrahams tireless in the high tessitura of the role) as “Doctor Right, alright” where Dudley’s eminently singable solos (gorgeous, actually) and their combined counterpoint hinted at more than a passing homage to Sondheim graduating later to a bluesy trio in the dog pound where she deftly managed to incorporate a howl or two into the vocal lines. Her skilful way with the orchestra is well known from her movie scores but here she tweaked a chamber ensemble – Orchestra Chroma – with telling resourcefulness. Really, she should write a musical.
Which brings me to one last point. If Operashots really seeks new perspectives on contemporary opera then it needs to embrace the broadest possible view of music theatre and investigate the profusion of talent that is alive and well and working under the auspices of organisations like Mercury Musical Developments. Actually one of their number, Tim Sutton, was playing piano in the Copeland.