In a small seaside town in Spain, on a grubby campsite near the beach, lust and murder – opera’s two key ingredients – are fomenting under the sweltering sun, pulling a smalltime official, a successful novelist, an unsuccessful poet, a homeless opera singer and a champion figure skater into a taut net of mutual suspicion and obsession. Roberto Bolaño’s 1993 novel La Pista de Hielo has been transformed into David Sawer’s new opera, commissioned by Garsington: The Skating Rink.

Alice Poggio (Skater) © Johan Persson
Alice Poggio (Skater)
© Johan Persson

Bolaño’s multi-layered, untrustworthy narrative shards are refined by skilled librettist Rory Mullarkey into a triple retelling of a murder from three compelling viewpoints: the opera divides into the stories of Gaspar, Remo and Enric, the three male protagonists linked together by the final crime. The stage action, thanks to the nuanced repetition of scenes from one account to another, reveals the synergies and gaps between their shared memories of one very dark summer. Mullarkey’s simple, potent libretto sometimes plugs straight into Bolaño in translation, but elsewhere condenses or intensifies the novel’s erratic moods, discovering moments of pure drama as our damaged characters roll from crisis to crisis. As lives and ideals unravel, delusion and disillusionment become key themes: this opera questions how society fails individuals, how we force and fail each other in life, and “Why do we always hurt the ones we love?”, as the homeless Rookie (a magnificently rasping, deliberately gravelly Alan Oke) asks poignantly in the final scene.

Ben Edquist (Remo) and Lauren Zolezzi (Nuria) © Johan Persson
Ben Edquist (Remo) and Lauren Zolezzi (Nuria)
© Johan Persson

Director and designer Stewart Laing uses coloured Perspex and a fluttering back wall of enormous fly screen ribbons to channel a modern, wipe-clean and disposable holidaymaking idyll in which omnipresent policemen do nothing useful, often eating ice creams or drinking beer, while a scruffy population of tattooed holidaymakers and homeless addicts float idly from bar to bar. A large Perspex box on wheels doubles as security room, municipal office, hotel room and finally prison cell. A single neon star glows blue over most of the action, while a boardwalk and a little sand at the front edge of the stage suggest the beach. The stage itself, brilliantly, is a white plastic expanse which turns out to be a skating surface, where the grace and elegance of Nuria’s art form is brought to life in silence by skater Alice Poggio; lighting by Malcolm Rippeth suggests heat and ice by turns. Huge wooden packing cases litter the edges, allowing singers to hide and watch one another in the ruined Palacio Benvingut, the site of the clandestine skating rink, while tents are pitched both on stage and in Wormsley’s gardens outside as Remo’s campsite. Laing’s production uses the whole space, exploiting the visual openness of Garsington’s glass box opera house and lack of proscenium arch: we are in this town too, as singers swing out over the orchestra pit to run up amongst us in the steep auditorium in attempts at escape, or pursuit, of foe or friend.

Sawer’s score is gripping, with sinuous melodies colliding with spikes of tension, and brash, angry passages resolving into mysterious or melancholic restraint, all seasoned with plenty of dissonance. Over this dynamic landscape, his vocal writing is clear and emotionally direct, each word set with bell-like clarity. Amidst much challenging dramatic singing, there are passages of beauty for every character. Remo’s final aria, “I’ve always thought one day the sea will freeze”, is a moment of sheer existential ecstasy. The range of sonic textures Sawer employs include a Chilean charango (a cousin of the ukulele), soprano saxophone, euphonium, a flugelhorn and a celesta: conductor Garry Walker and the Garsington Opera Orchestra kept everything coherent, purposeful and slick. Microphones are employed for public announcements within the score, Sawer clearly enjoying the contrast of synthetic sound, and we even have a karaoke scene, performed with a beguiling mix of cheerfulness and pathos by actor Steven Beard.

Susan Bickley (Carmen) and Grant Doyle (Enric) © Johan Persson
Susan Bickley (Carmen) and Grant Doyle (Enric)
© Johan Persson

Grant Doyle is heartbreaking as lumpen embezzler Enric, a little man who really does gaze at the stars with his feet in the gutter, an oddly inspiring character: tragically inadequate, intoxicatingly romantic, and reviled by everyone around him for being fat. Susan Bickley’s magnificent Carmen stalks the piece like an avenging Fury, an alcoholic opera singer who exudes a spellbinding magnetism over many. Bickley is partnered and rivalled by Claire Wild’s hauntingly vulnerable Caridad, frighteningly convincing as a desperate junkie, Wild’s glorious soprano conveying shock and despair in equal measure, her performance notable for its forensically accurate physical detail. Ben Edquist’s suave, seductive Remo Moran is a beautifully-voiced combination of outward authority and inner dilemma, forming a lovely partnership with Lauren Zolezzi’s warm, bright Nuria. Sam Furness is on exceptional form as dreamy poet Gaspar, his generous tenor effortlessly filling Garsington’s opera house from any angle: Furness had an excited world première audience eating out of his hand within just a few bars. Louise Winter’s Mayor Pilar is ambitious, imperious and deliciously smug. There are only a few performances: get your skates on.