Clearly an opera about dementia isn’t going to be a romp. But I was far more charmed and entertained by The Opera Group’s latest premiere than I expected to be. And touched as well. In its gentler, understated and small-scale way The Lion’s Face finds a way of saying something profound and moving about the condition in which so many of us will spend our final years.
The title refers to the supposedly leonine expression of many dementia sufferers. But there’s noting impassive about Dave Hill’s brilliantly portrayed Mr D, the central figure in Glyn Maxwell’s libretto. As snow falls outside the care home to which he’s confined, he is pathetically trying to make out the blotted landscape of his own memories.
He is troubled by some wispy recollection of a painful boyhood experience: a birthday party, elliptically suggested by a jerky home movie in John Fulljames’ resourceful staging. Yet he cannot put his memory into cogent words that will mean anything to his loyal but despairing wife (Elizabeth Sikora) or his carer (Rachel Hynes) or the doctor (Benedict Nelson, particularly intense and impressive) who is so desperately trying to “think the thought that will light the sky” for his benighted patients. Only a chance meeting with a bubbly schoolgirl (Fflur Wyn, uncannily convincing) unites the old man with his boyhood self and temporarily brings relief to his troubled mind.
The work is deeply rooted in real-life observation to offer superficial answers or false hope. Hill’s extraordinary performance is confined to abrupt shards of fragmented speech. The rest of the cast sing a disturbingly vivid score by the young London-based Russian composer Elena Langer. Full of surreal pastiches, nightmarish scurrying, frightening eruptions, eerie treble voices and disorientating timbres, it is a highly impressive attempt to express in aural terms the turmoil inside a mind that has become permanently unhinged from rational thought, or indeed from its own sense of self.
Further performances of this courageous piece this week in Newcastle, Watford Cardiff and Cheltenham and at the Linbury Theatre [at the Royal Opera House in London]. Unsensational, even matter-of-fact, it nevertheless focuses unflinchingly on the terrifying void into which consciousness disintegrates in millions of lives.