Opera singers are often judged by their vocal abilities, but on stage there is more to it than that. They must inhabit their roles and give meaning to the characters they portray. The very best must also be great actors, and with this in mind the Grange Festival has produced a King Lear featuring great opera performers, such as Sir John Tomlinson as Lear and Sir Thomas Allen as Gloucester.
It was all entirely spoken, and began with Kim Begley as the Fool banging a drum, and John Tomlinson as Lear entering on a large tricycle. This entertainment started what turned out to be the huge clarity of vision in Keith Warner’s production of Shakespeare’s play. The performances were outstanding, notably Emma Bell, a star of several Wagnerian roles, who was beautifully spiteful as the king’s second daughter Regan, enthusiastic to see one of her stiletto heels gouge out the faithful Gloucester’s eyes. Susan Bullock was similarly nasty as the eldest daughter Goneril, with Louise Alder as the lovely Cordelia. When it comes to nastiness, actor-singer Oskar McCarthy as Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund was surpassingly cunning and mendacious, a complete contrast to Anthony Flaum as his half-brother Edgar, true heir to the Gloucester Earldom. A sympathetic figure as the gibbering idiot Poor Tom, he showed true nobility later as the rightful son, and their fight with swords and dagger was brilliantly executed thanks to fight director Bret Yount.
Edgar’s descent into apparent madness had a real life counterpart, well before Shakespeare’s time, with the Islamic mathematician Ibn Al-Haytham in Basra. He proposed a scheme to control the flow of the Nile, but when the Egyptian Caliph Al-Hakim invited him to Cairo to head an engineering team that sailed up the river, he realised his ideas were unworkable. On his return to Cairo the cruelly unpredictable Caliph appointed him to an administrative post, but he went bonkers and was confined to his house. When the Caliph died in 1021, Al-Haytham suddenly recovered his wits, openly writing scientific texts and teaching.
Presenting Shakespeare’s King Lear with opera singers in this simple staging has been a project several years in development, and it was a revelation. Kim Begley’s Fool, with his brolly inside out, and a brilliant vignette of ventriloquism, showed ethereally distant wisdom, Thomas Allen’s Gloucester a sympathetic honesty of purpose, and John Tomlinson’s Lear revealed a king already losing his wits, but conscious of his own folly. Tomlinson is a world master at unfathomable wisdom, as revealed in such important operatic roles as The Minotaur, and Gurnemanz in Parsifal, and this production delves deeply into what lies beneath the surface of power.
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