First and foremost, Through His Teeth is a gripping psychological drama. Bedford was commissioned by the Royal Opera House to write a piece on the subject of Faust, to run alongside the star-studded performances of Gounod’s opera on the main stage. I, for one, was intrigued to see how a contemporary composer like Bedford would deal with a story which as been told repeatedly for centuries, and one that is highly familiar to opera-goers.

Through his teeth © Stephen Cummiskey
Through his teeth
© Stephen Cummiskey

Rather than simply retell the story with his own music, Bedford focused on the true story of a man who seduced several women over the course of a decade, lying and scheming his way into stealing their money, and as Bedford writes on his blog, “kidnapping them without using any force”. The similarity between this tale and that of Faust is the idea of the identity being like the soul – a thing one can steal by deception. The story begins in a television studio, with the protagonist of the work (knows as ‘A’) being interviewed by a Fiona Bruce-style reporter about her experiences. After this scene, the rest of the opera takes place through a series of flashbacks, or reconstructions, detailing the events of her story. The man (R, in Bedford’s opera) meets A in a car salesroom, and they quickly begin a relationship. R tells her that he is secretly an MI5 agent, which she believes. From here, R manipulates, deceives, and effectively takes over A’s entire life, beginning with threatening her with withdrawing the sex life that she craves, and moving into more sinister territory following a spat over dinner, by claiming that there is a man watching, who will kill them in their beds.

The set is very exposed and yet, at the same time, deeply claustrophobic, perfectly evoking the chilling storyline. A series of plain timber beams frame the stage, larger at the front of the stage and smaller at the back. The stage also has four large sheets of metal which slide around to affect the various scene changes, and often A’s psychological isolation. Each sheet is punctured with evenly spaced round holes – each about the size of a tennis ball, so that even when a character or piece of scenery is behind a sheet, they are still faintly visible – this is an effective device that pinpoints the idea of constant surveillance, a theme which is prevalent in the work, given the nature of the story. This theme is also explored through the use of CCTV; the back wall of the stage has surveillance footage projected onto it throughout.

The score is played with accuracy and colour by CHROMA, conducted potently by Sian Edwards. The work is scored for eight parts – a harp, an accordion, various tuned percussion, trumpet, clarinet, violin, cello and double bass. Bedford states in the programme that he sought to write for as many instruments that could play block chords as possible, for the darker, more frantic sections of the story (hence the harp and accordion). Most of the parts have a significant number of quartertones to play (with the exception of the instruments which don’t have the facility to play between semitones), which really enhances the atmosphere of the work – clashes and uneasiness purveying the sound world, without any of the three singers having quartertones written (Bedford states in his blog that “they’ve probably got enough to do anyways without worrying about the quartertones”).

Through his teeth: Anna Devin © Stephen Cummiskey
Through his teeth: Anna Devin
© Stephen Cummiskey

All three singers shine, and sing with fantastic accuracy and diction; there are surtitles projected above the stage, but I barely had to look at them. Anna Devin gives a fantastic performance as A, with an even tone throughout the voice, and a particularly impressive, ringing upper register. Her acting is convincing too, effectively conveying the psychological state of her character in each scene. Victoria Simmonds is the uncomfortably tactless reporter, and A’s sister, a nervous, worried, and slightly demeaning presence in A’s life, mocking her from the very beginning of her relationship with R, before things start to unravel. Her voice is as powerful and clear at the bottom as it is at the top, and her movement is always very well coordinated with the music. Owen Gilhooly plays the devious R with chilling precision – one moment kind and loving, and the next a scheming monster. His opening scene (scene two of the work) is fairly high in the voice, and Gilhooly displays a full range of dynamics, even in this part of the voice. He very effectively plays the part of a man who is playing a part – something which is never easy.

I was engaged with Through His Teeth from the very first note until the end of the opera, and would heartily recommend it to anybody in need of an evening of modern drama and violence.