An operatic thiller? Can such a thing exist? Søren Nils Eichberg’s opera Glare tries hard to convince, at least initially. An edgy score and a succession of quick scene changes swiftly introduce characters and relationships, but the pace slackens in a long central scene and the opera is hampered by a poor libretto. When you spot the denouement coming a mile off, the result is less than thrilling.

Amar Muchhala (Alex) and Sky Ingram (Lea) © Stephen Cummiskey | ROH
Amar Muchhala (Alex) and Sky Ingram (Lea)
© Stephen Cummiskey | ROH

In Glare, Eichberg and his librettist, Hannah Dübgen, express a desire to explore issues of identity and reality. Can ‘perfection’ be attained, or is it just a falsehood? “Perfect is the least you should expect” is an oft-repeated line. If we expect perfection all the time, don’t we always have to live with disappointment?

The opera’s four protagonists live in a modern, cosmopolitan world, depicted in Madeleine Boyd’s simple set featuring grubby mattress, sink and pink neon lighting. Alex has just embarked on a new relationship with Lea, who seems perfect in every way. Too perfect. Christina, a jealous, knife-wielding ex-girlfriend, warns Lea that Alex is dangerous. Meanwhile, his best friend, the cynical Michael, reveals why Lea is so perfect: she is his creation, a robot – a Learning Exposed Android – created for his pleasure. In the face of this revelation, Alex confronts Lea.

“Women are all the same,” comments Michael at one point, nearly echoing a line by the manipulative Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte. Ashley Riches, Alfonso in the Jette Parker performance last summer, played this ambiguous figure well. He’s obviously a dab hand at playing pool, too… and there’s the problem. When your mind is more focused on the game the characters play than the plot itself, it’s a sure sign the libretto has failed.

Clare Presland (Christina) © Stephen Cummiskey | ROH
Clare Presland (Christina)
© Stephen Cummiskey | ROH
And Dübgen’s libretto is problematic. In trying to portray something that ‘rings true’ with the audience, the banal dialogue sits uncomfortably in an operatic setting. Words like ‘fuck’ caused audience titters and there were guffaws at several other moments of everyday dialogue and action. Director Thaddeus Strassberger, whose dull production of I due Foscari on the main stage has just ended, seemed equally short of ideas here. Are a lesbian kiss, and a rape scene while Alex masturbates under the sheets designed to shock?

The flaws in the libretto and staging are unfortunate, given that Eichberg’s 75-minute score is often very fine, performed by the excellent eleven-strong CHROMA, conducted by Geoffrey Paterson. Niftily weaving in nightclub electronics to the orchestral textures, Eichberg creates a distinctive sound world that suits the drama well. Pulsating synthesiser and drums compete with sawing double bass and bump'n'grind contrabassoon gyrations. The interminable pool game between Alex and Michael was bearable due to the rhythmic slaps of the inventive, didgeridoo-like combination of flute and bass clarinet coming from the pit.

© Stephen Cummiskey | ROH
© Stephen Cummiskey | ROH

Eichberg’s conventional operatic writing is strong, especially for the character of Lea. Sky Ingram, in a flawless performance, copes with long, stratospheric lines of vocal writing, while subtly portraying the cool manner of Lea. Alex is given as tricky a vocal ride, but Amar Muchhala coped gamely and acted convincingly. Clare Presland’s distinctive mezzo gave full character to crazed ex-girlfriend Christina, while Riches was in good, dark voice as sleazy Michael.

Does the pulse rate quicken enough for Glare to qualify as a thriller? I shan’t give away the twist at the end, but it lacks the impact it could have had with a better paced libretto and direction. Mild palpitations don’t qualify.

***11