Imagine if I told you that one day, your private correspondence would be performed on stage. Such a thought must have never occurred to Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg when he was exchanging letters with his wife Mathilde in the summer of 1908. Rachel McVeigh has transformed these very letters into an engaging drama, with excellent music by Freddie Meyers.
This one-act opera consists of seven scenes, with the character of Mathilde (Isabella Pitman) at the centre of each. Feeling abandoned by her cold husband Arnold (Thomas Lowen), who is obsessed with finishing his string quartet, she begins an affair with his best friend, the painter Richard (Maximilian Laurie). Because of several jumps in time and events between the scenes, the reading of letters serves as a clever framing device for the action unfolding on stage.
Admittedly, the first three scenes (dealing with the Schönbergs’ family life) feel a bit repetitive. Notes are low and stretched, and even a trivial phrase such as ‘How are you?’ is stretched out to attain some tragic effect. A refreshing contrast is made by the end of the third scene, as Richard declares his love to Mathilde under frantic violin strokes and thundering percussion. In the second half, the music is quicker, more dynamic and often superb: Freddie Meyer has injected a lot of life into the highly emotional scenes.
Lowen is magnificent: the stoicism of his character is echoed by his monotone bass voice. A perfect emotional counterweight is provided by Isabella Pitman, who expresses Mathilde’s torn inner feelings in both her wide vocal range and dynamic facial expressions. The star of the night, however, was Maximilian Laurie, who delivers an overwhelming performance in the third and sixth scene. His character does not require many words to express love; repeating the word ‘why?’ for five times grants him a powerful and mystifying effect.
The two other characters, Arnold’s friends Irene (Miriam Chapman-Rosenfeld) and Viktor (Tom Dixon), remain mostly outside of the action. They are the only rational characters, and illustrate the civil life that the artists reject. Viktor’s buffoonish appearance is well matched by Tom Dixon’s countertenor.
Infidelity and frustrated artists may sound like a cliché, but this opera is more than that: it is a riveting human drama, brought beautifully to life by Meyer’s music.