Charles Bonnet syndrome is an often-unreported condition: after all, no one wants to admit they’re seeing things. CBS gives its patients random or recurring hallucinations while they are entirely conscious, without upsetting their mental balance, although the very appearance of the hallucinations can naturally lead patients to question their sanity. For artist Lucy (Melanie Sanders), heroine of Spyros Syrmos’ new opera The Blank Canvas, her CBS hallucinations provoke first fear of insanity, then a new enthusiasm for life. A painter who has specialised in abstraction, Lucy’s visual world is suddenly invaded by sharp geometric shapes which remind her of her dead husband Peter (Edmund Hastings), an engineer. At first, Lucy thinks she is going mad. The shapes which haunt her have a practical definition and simplicity which recall Peter’s inability to understand her own more abstract art, a blankness which was painful to both. Exasperated, Lucy decides to paint the shapes she sees, unexpectedly creating a renowned new series in her already-successful career (though we are not told whether Peter would have liked the resulting paintings any better than her earlier work). The shapes, in fact, turn out the precursor of approaching blindness. Lucy has to find a new future, without her sight, without her art: and, ultimately, without Peter, as she finally turns for emotional comfort to Gio, her artistic friend and mentor who has been in love with her for years.

Melanie Sanders (Lucy) and Edmund Hastings (Peter) © Laura Marie Linck
Melanie Sanders (Lucy) and Edmund Hastings (Peter)
© Laura Marie Linck

Fay Wrixon’s libretto (printed in full in the well-researched programme) expresses itself with simple clarity, taking pleasure in technical language (“trapezium… rhombus… micrometer”) and consonant-driven textures (“this dazzling geometric jumble”). Wrixon’s characters generally describe their feelings in plain diction, only occasionally moving into symbolism (“My mind’s eye is sharper than ever before; it is trained on the future”). Spyros Syrmos sets Wrixon’s words to music skilfully, enshrining their natural phrasing and emphasis and ensuring they can be easily understood throughout: a significant achievement. Meanwhile, Syrmos creates a magical, mystical atmosphere by combining piano (a deft Chad Kelly, also conducting) with vibraphone (a delicately-timed William Renwick). The mood darkens with atonal harmonies and an occasionally shrill flute line. Overall, Syrmos' sound is somewhere between an old-fashioned child’s music box and deliberate modernism; generally, it is very pleasing. Occasionally, the music slows the opera down too much, holding up Lucy’s story rather than extending it: while Syrmos and Wrixon’s ideas are all interesting, their plot phrasing lurches a little, moving with exciting quickness at some points but stammering at others, which can begin to make the evening feel long at times. The whole would benefit from further editing. Nevertheless, three strong lead performances command our attention.

Melanie Sanders plays Lucy with supreme poise, keeping her emotions understated and realistic, singing with smooth strength. It would be all too tempting to make Lucy a classic operatic “mad woman”, but Sanders – and director Lucy Bradley – chooses a subtler, more natural route which makes Lucy’s journey genuinely believable and interesting. Some of Bradley’s decisions seem a little at odds with the music: during a pretty lullaby sung by Peter, a sleeping Lucy kicks pots of paintbrushes onto the floor with noisy repetition, which seems, at best, ungrateful, and at worst unsubtle (as he soothes her with order, she spoils it with chaos – literally). However, Sanders’ focus on her character ensures we stay with Lucy even through these slightly counterintuitive moments: her final determination to adapt to her blindness, and embrace a new future, is inspiring.

Edmund Hastings makes a bewitchingly attractive and playful Peter, bringing the charm of the everyday into Lucy’s otherwise intense aesthetic world. We can instantly understand why these two love each other, even if they cannot, at times, understand it themselves. In the finest scene of the evening, the widowed Lucy enters Peter’s den to look for his micrometer, but instead finds a folder in which he has secretly kept all her cuttings, reviews, flyers and, heartbreakingly, his own bewildered notes documenting his constant attempts to comprehend her art. Lucy had always felt angry at Peter’s ostensible refusal to engage with her work in his lifetime; this revelation of Peter’s silent pride in her career, and his own private dread of being a philistine, is profoundly moving. As this problem in their otherwise-happy marriage was tragically, posthumously resolved, the tears ran down my cheeks.

Edward Hughes (Gio) © Laura Marie Linck
Edward Hughes (Gio)
© Laura Marie Linck

Edward Hughes is convincing as Lucy’s clammy-palmed companion Gio, a would-be lover whom we suspect Lucy has refused many times. The main duff note in the opera, however, is her final acceptance of Gio: while the retrospective scenes of Lucy and Peter’s marriage thrill with passion, Lucy’s eventual embrace of Gio feels like mere acquiescence, even resignation. Though Hughes leaves us in no doubt of Gio’s desperate desire for Lucy, and Peter tells us repeatedly that Lucy “needs a man like Gio to guide her to her destiny, help her scale the heights of her ambition”, it is hard to feel convinced that Lucy truly needs anyone as she embraces her future with glorious courage.

Showing quality in its libretto, music, and performance, The Blank Canvas is a deserving winner of OperaUpClose’s Flourish competition for new writing. Some further editing, however, could make it a real winner all round.