By Tom Sutcliffe
Phyllis Tate’s 1960 opera has not deserved the neglect into which it has fallen. Will the current claims about advancing the status of women composers actually mean anything? Tate was married to Alan Frank who ran OUP’s music list for 21 years until 1975, and stepped back as a composer himself when he recognised his wife’s greater skills. Of course it is absurd to pretend that justice and equality have anything to do with success or achievement in the creative arts – though certainly opportunity, education and training are relevant factors. Now that the BBC gets much of its opera for broadcasting from the New York Met, Tate’s treatment of a story about Jack the Ripper seems unlikely to crop up there.
So thank God for German opera companies. Bremerhaven, in no sense one of the best, has just ended its season with a production by English director Sam Brown of a German translation – Der Untermieter. After seeing it, and listening to the Lyrita CDs of the 1964 star-quality recording (with Owen Brannigan, Alexander Young, Joseph Ward and Johanna Peters) of the work, I’d call it a completely valid and absorbing achievement – with memorably effective music and a very viable text. It could well be staged as a Prom. It ought to be revived soon somewhere in the UK or Ireland. It has plenty going for it.
The story concerns a couple (who used to be in service) with a room to let in their rented Marylebone Road home. They are delighted when a slightly weird figure with a tendency to religious mania takes the room – and fail to notice he might have something to do with the cases of murdered tarts headlined in the evening paper. Is their daughter at risk in their house? What causes their blindness? Is their daughter’s fiancé (Joe Chandler, a copper, played by a perfectly decent Canadian tenor, MacKenzie Gallinger) infected with the same blindness? The musical language is quite close to Tippett and Rawsthorne, but with a distinctive lyricism. It is all very effective, as the old recording makes crystal clear.
Bremerhaven, like every German opera, has a bewilderingly international ensemble of singers, which makes it surprising the house opted to translate this work – when like most places they tend to work in “original language”. The fundamental Englishness of the opera was not assisted by translation, or by having a very Armenian Ripper (Vikrant Subramanian), and Korean George Bunting (Leo Yeun-Ku Chu) – though both were typically robust vocally. Trying to attract an audience, they dubbed it a “Kriminaloper” or “Krimioper”. It was moderately well sold on the last night. The women (Patrizia Häusermann as the mother, and Alice Fuder as her daughter Daisy) were persuasive. But both Buntings were rather too old and grand. George is supposed to be capable of working with other waiters on a last-minute freelance assignment one night – so why dress him like Winston Churchill? Why make him disabled and give him a stick? Nor did the cockney pub chorus scenes work as they should. Scene changes for the set’s assorted rooms, and the staircase moving from side to side, gave limited sense of domestic reality, while striving at naturalism, gloom and poverty.
But perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the production was not Brown’s general difficulty in making such a mixed cast come together convincingly as an insecure lower-class family, but the remarkably bald and unstylish conducting of the company’s young Greek Kapellmeister Ektoras Tartanis – who seemed totally lost in this very firmly-defined but long-ago British compositional world. Music is more than just notes; how they work together does need some feeling for the expressive musical language of the era from which they spring. So poor Phyllis Tate was not helped by German translation or by such an alien musical and theatrical environment. Equally, Sam Brown, despite trying hard with the lighting, never truly managed to meld this sample of typically British lower-class Victorian life, with both wobbly design and communication.