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Review: THE BLUE WOMAN, Royal Opera House

Review: THE BLUE WOMAN, Royal Opera House

Katie Mitchell directs this new opera at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre

Review: THE BLUE WOMAN, Royal Opera House A modern Gesamtkunstwerk, The Blue Woman moulds music, singing, poetry, and film into a unique artistic experience. But unlike a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk with a vast narrative scope, The Blue Woman has a narrow, almost solipsistic, focus, choosing to deepen rather than expand its focal point.

Unflinchingly navigating the psychological landscape of a woman processing the trauma of a sexual assault, it is an intensely intimate artwork that challenges the boundaries of opera.

The entire production is stripped of traditional operatic pageantry. Director Katie Mitchell's sparse staging is nothing more than a stage drenched in cobalt blue with four women (Elaine Mitchener, Lucy Schaufer, Gweneth Ann Rand, and Rosie Middleton) who sit deep in troubled contemplation. They are shadowed by four cellists behind them with a film projected overhead.

Each of the composite elements of The Blue Woman utilise the idiosyncrasies of their medium to frame the experience of trauma, each illuminating something different through their perspective. Composer Laura Bowler's music is corporeal, hijacking the nervous system and sending shivers shaking down the spine. Its atonality is often onomatopoeic, evoking screams, shudders, and squeals through the four on-stage cellos.

Conductor Jamie Man electrifies Bowler's music with a jittery tempo, melting the score with searing anxiety. Sometimes it crescendos to a dull but oppressive drone, and sometimes it gasps for breath over the relentless hour long run time. Relentless is the operative word here. Even as the music settles, there remains an underlying trepidation throughout.

Yet the cinematic parts of The Blue Women illuminate the central theme through an external perspective looking inwards. Grant Gee's film depicts a woman traversing London as if she is looking for something that is not there. The woman, played by a stern Eve Ponsonby, is nervous, her face is carved with a heavy brow and concrete frown. The camera pursues her, as if the audience are stalking her uncannily on her restless journey.

Mere flickers of her fragmenting inner life flash through Laura Lomas' stinging libretto. Lomas, and perhaps the whole production, is indebited to playwright Sarah Kane. Lomas inherits the torrid poetry of Kane's 4:48 Psychosis whilst drawing on the psychological intensity and gruelling imagery of Kane's earlier works.

Mitchell is a natural fit to direct The Blue Woman given her critically acclaimed production of Kane's Cleansed at The National Theatre in 2016. As in Kane's writing, it is up to the audience to flesh out the duality of the external imagery and internal turmoil to bridge the perspectives.

Yet despite this striking interplay, The Blue Woman never marries its parts to create something beyond them. They are puzzle pieces that do not fit together, a psychological gap is left doomed to be unresolved.

Perhaps to criticise The Blue Woman for not being more than the sum of its parts feels misguided, blinded by the expectations of opera as an art form. Instead, The Blue Woman ought to be viewed as more of an art installation, concentrating on a complex psychological concept and using different artistic media to probe something that in reality cannot be totalised. But if it is a peice of concept art, it is an exasperating one.

The Blue Woman is a co-production between the Royal Opera House and Britten Pears Arts. It plays at the Linbury Theatre at ROH until 11 July and at Snape Maltings on 8 and 9 September.

Photo Credit: Camilla Greenwell

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