Music Theatre Wales’ production of The Killing Flower begins in darkness. The soprano’s pure sound penetrates the unlit theatre space, unaccompanied by instrumentation. The song she sings is an elegy by the 16th-century composer Claude Le Jeune: “What happened to the lovely eyes, which once brightened my soul with their rays?” Barely perceptible in the unlit space is a man curled on the floor in the center of the acting space. The effect is a metaphor for the production, where everything is pared back to haunting extremes – the minimalist presentation throwing the sound and action into high relief.

When the lights come up, a silky white parachute shape falls from the lights above, describing an arena that is both garden and bed and that cuts a kind of stage away from the darkness above the audience seating, which had been placed to form a theater-in-the-round. A red rose lies in the center of the white silk. Everyone is dressed in thick black.

Other things fall from above during the course of the opera: red rose petals, white rose petals. They are like leaves, or snow, or drops of blood. The music too treats notes and phrases as discrete and individual entities, every phrase sung is limited to collections of short vocal slides, staccato wavering between two or three notes, dynamic flare-ups from pianissimo to forte that fall quickly back to pianissimo. Across time the singers begin to sound like birds or animals, speaking a language of calls rather than duets imitating conversation.

The orchestra, comprised of twenty instruments – strings, woodwinds, a splash of brass and percussion – has a similar no-longer-quite-musical sound. The score, except for the occasional more familiar melodic lyricism at the opera’s prologue and in the interludes between scenes, is made of gestures of sound: short harmonic scrapes from the strings, breathy sounds from the woodwinds that suggest rather than achieve the fullness of notes. The percussion settles at the end of the opera, after a lengthy processional beat like the tolling of a bell, into the double beat of the human heart. It’s closer to the sounds of the natural world than the formal music of the concert hall. Michael Rafferty conducted wonderfully.

The composer Salvatore Sciarrino has distilled the Renaissance composer Gesualdo’s murder of his wife and her lover into a compelling chamber opera of just 70 minutes duration. The text is based on a drama written after Gesualdo’s death, Il tradimento per l’onore. The libretto was translated by Paola Loreto and adapted to music by Kit Hesketh-Harvey.

The opera presents five moments in the action of the drama, which encompass only one day from morning until night. The first scene begins with the Duke and Duchess declaring their love for each other: “Oh, the delight of love.” When the Duchess (soprano Amanda Forbes) pricks her finger on the rose’s thorns, the Duke (baritone George Humphreys) faints: “Your blood is too high a price to pay.” At noon, the Duchess meets the Guest (countertenor William Towers) and the two fall immediately and hopelessly in love: “I will suffer.” The Servant (tenor Michael Bennett) informs the Duke, who is furious with jealousy and wounded pride: “I was not dishonoured till you spoke … I shall lose her, she who is my life.”

These scraps of verse floated out from the mostly unintelligible lyrics, but were enough to ground the action. This is technically demanding singing, if only from the point of view that it requires continuous repetition of vocal techniques that run counter to legato and melodic phrasing. There is no continuous support from the band, which is absorbed in creating its own field of sound.

At night after wheeling in the dead Guest, his chest covered with red rose petals, on their bed, the Duke asks the Duchess to come to him. Their text was that of the lovers’ confusion between self and other: “Do you love me as you love yourself?” The opera ends with the Duke stabbing the now white-clad Duchess.

Michael McCarthy’s highly stylized production fits with the music, and Sciarrino’s music is a fitting interpretation of extreme emotions: love that knows no control and no reason.

The Killing Flower: George Humphreys and Amanda Forbes, © Clive Barda
The Killing Flower: George Humphreys and Amanda Forbes,
© Clive Barda
***11