I always approach contemporary opera with a dose of trepidation. Often inaccessible and veiled in discordant notes, it’s easy to veer in the direction of more traditional composition. But as I headed back to Garsington Opera in Wormsley earlier this week, I was pleasantly surprised and somewhat bowled over by its latest offering, The Skating Rink. The opera features a murder, always a good ingredient. And in case you’re wondering, yes there’s a skating rink on-stage, sitting alongside a beach boardwalk. A strange coupling, but it works.
David Sawer’s The Skating Rink was specially commissioned by Garsington, with a libretto by playwright Rory Mullarkey. The latter is a very busy man, with his play Pity also showing at the Royal Court Theatre. Based on the 1993 novel by Chilean, Roberto Bolaño, the opera is set on Spain’s Costa Brava in the early 1990s. This tourist destination is washed out and tacky, much like the characters in our story.
Three male protagonists give us their unique version of events surrounding the murder of a faded opera star, Carmen (Susan Bickley). Gaspar (Sam Furness) is a campsite night-watchman cum poet who is in love with a homeless vagrant, Caridad (Claire Wild). She is evicted from her 2m x 2m campsite plot and roams the beachside cafés with Carmen. The campsite supervisor and local stud, Remo (Ben Edquist) is having an affair with ice-skating Olympic hopeful, Nuria, whilst Remo’s boss and the head of Social Services, “fat” Enric (Grant Doyle) is secretly infatuated with Nuria. She spins in and out of the plot, tugging at Enric’s heart. He is so enraptured by her that he embezzles funds from the council to build the rink for her. Nuria’s role is sung by soprano Lauren Zolezzi, but the skating is left to professional, Alice Poggio.
Stewart Laing is in charge of the direction and innovative set design. A multi-coloured Perspex box moves around the stage, acting as a hotel room, campsite supervisor station and prison cell. A sandy beach boardwalk spills into a synthetic ice-skating rink which we learn is housed in a crumbling mansion on the outskirts of the town. The campsite extends from the stage into the gardens of the Wormsley Estate.
It’s a dark and complex tale with bouts of melancholia, but it also delivers some colourful moments and a few surprises: a karaoke, disco and a brass band. And I could swear there was the strumming of a banjo coming from the orchestra pit. The musical score has icy undertones to accompany the theme, but also delivers rich and punchy intensity. The performances are strong, but Grant Doyle is the star of the evening as the oversized, maligned and misunderstood Enric (who at one point does some dancing on ice of his own, albeit via a surrogate actor).
So whodunnit? There are several contenders for the murderous prize: the narrating trio as well as Carmen’s boyfriend and local rookie (Alan Oke). As the plot jumps and lifts, we’re left with our heads spinning until the death on ice comes to its dramatic conclusion. You won’t leave singing any tunes from The Skating Rink, but it’s a gold medal from me for this fine piece of British choreography. The Skating Rink is on until the 16 July. You can catch it on BBC Radio 3 later this year.
Garsington Opera celebrates its 30th birthday next year with a terrific lineup which includes: Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Offenbach’s Fantasio and Britten’s Turn of the Screw. You can become an Affiliate Member for £20 and buy tickets 30 days in advance of public booking.