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REVIEW: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Sir Alexander Gibson Opera Studio, Glasgow

The Master of Music Opera students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland present a bold and brave, rarely seen contemporary opera double bill at the Sir Alexander Gibson Opera Studio this autumn.

First is The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Michael Nyman’s opera based on one of the case studies in the 1985 book of the same name by neurologist Oliver Sacks.

Dr. P a renowned singer and music teacher, has visual agnosia. He sees line, colour, simple shapes, patterns and movement but cannot recognise or make sense of what he sees. In Nyman’s opera, Dr. P’s condition is revealed through a series of scenes of gradual diagnosis.

Oliver Sacks himself declared the idea of turning this subject matter into an opera as simply ‘mad’, and one can’t help but agree as it proves to be a somewhat challenging work. That each scene comprises almost identical content and indeed the music, largely comprising extracts of Schumann (most especially Ich grolle nicht from Dichterliebe) lacks contrast which in turn lends itself to tedium despite its short running time. That the opera is based on such a well-regarded text doesn’t do it any favours in comparison.

 

The production team are of the finest quality, director Caroline Clegg, conductor William Cole and designer Finlay McLay have enviable CVs and indeed, any failings are not at their hands.

As Dr. P’s wife Marie Cayeux is vocally sound but her diction leaves a lot to be desired. To have to read the surtitles of an opera that is sung entirely in English is distracting to say the least. In a cast of three the balance is thrown out and any shortcomings thrown very much to the fore. Ross Cummings’ (above, centre) Dr. P is fine sounding throughout, however his exaggerated facial expressions are somewhat distracting in such a small auditorium. Standout among the trio is William Searle as Dr. S who delivers a finely measured acting performance to compliment a beautiful singing one.

 

The bravery of programming challenging works is to be lauded. However, the subject matter is tediously repetitive and provides little to sustain interest. The piece ends with the eminent doctor declaring that his only prescription is more music, but maybe not this music.

Continues its run at the RCS next week.

Images © Royal Conservatoire of Scotland/Robbie McFadzean