Last Days review – The Opera of Leith is dark and beautiful | Opera
VSConventionally, suicides give opera their dramatic climaxes – think Tosca, Götterdämmerung, Werther. But in by Olivier Leith Last Days, the suicide of the central character is the opera, a fatality from the first moments until the dark and frozen end 90 minutes later. Its starting point was the 2005 film by Gus Van Sant from which Leith and his librettist Matt Copson borrowed both title and plot, and which in turn was loosely based on the final days of Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana.
Van Sant’s central character is Blake, a rock musician fresh out of rehab who hides from his fame and the friends, fans, and managers who all want a piece of him. Leith and Copson cast Blake in a non-singing role, which is played in a gender-neutral cast by the French actor Agatha Roussel. He says very little in the opera that is intelligible – the surtitles decipher his enigmatic mumblings. To a greater or lesser extent, every other character on stage sings – a delivery driver (Mimi Doulton), a superfan (Patricia Auchterlonie), two Mormon evangelists (Seumas Begg and Kate Howden) and a private detective (Sion Goronwy) hired to locate Blake. His manager is just heard on the phone, like the chattering, pre-recorded voice of a Montana cattle auctioneer.
With Blake as an inert target, all these parasites gradually generate chaos around him. The production (a joint effort between the Royal Opera and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where Leith is composer-in-residence) is directed by Copson and Anna Morsey, with designs by Grace Smart and oversized suits by Balenciaga. It portrays this grungy mayhem too easily, leaving little room for characterization; you witness the disintegration without ever engaging emotionally; Blake himself, in Rousselle’s wonderfully mastered performance, seems untouchable and, ultimately, unsaveable from himself.
But as should always be the case in an opera, what articulates and animates the drama is the score. Most of Leith’s vocal lines are deliberately dislocated, their accents never falling where you’d expect, though there are a few exceptions – a few sets, in which the vocals fit together in touchingly beautiful moments. , and a veristic-style number “Non Voglio Mai Vedere Il Sole Tramontare”, composed by Leith and pre-recorded by the American singer-songwriter Caroline Polachekwhich is first heard as Blake absently plays an unmistakably Nirvana-like riff on his guitar in the opera’s only explicit Cobain reference.
Driven by Jack Sheenthe orchestra combines the strings of 12 Set with the percussions and keyboards of Duo GBSR, George Barton and Siwan Rhys to provide textures ranging from dense dark harmonies to simple instrumental lines, which are enhanced by sampled sounds ranging from fake birdsong to breakfast cereal poured into a bowl. In the opera’s final minutes, however, all that remains is a somber procession, in a work that, for all its beauty, otherwise keeps its characters strictly at bay.
In the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by email at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the Lifeline crisis helpline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines are available at befrienders.org.