An opera about Alzheimer’s was never going to be exhilarating, and one couldn’t recommend The Lion’s Face to anybody in search of a fun evening out. But there’s a fundamental honesty about the piece and an absence of sentimentality or melodrama which commands respect.
Glyn Maxwell’s text presents the simplest of situations. An elderly man (a spoken role) is floundering in the disease’s maze. His wife struggles to cope, helped by a briskly efficient carer. From the sidelines, a clinician tries helplessly to explain and comfort. The carer has an impatient and uncomprehending young daughter who attempts to lead her own childishly self-centred life, but who is drawn into a sort of a relationship with the elderly man. There’s no resolution or consolation, aside from the clinician’s uncertain assertion that sometimes he can see “a world beyond this long disease”. Meanwhile there is only a landscape of darkness.
Elena Langer’s score mimicks a world of mental chaos. Spare and quirky, sometimes sharply abrasive, sometimes sweetly melancholy, it moves through jerks in pace and shards of melody which appear to be on the verge of cohering into harmonic sense only to disconnect and disengage. It’s not easy to listen to, and it’s not meant to be.
The Opera Group has developed the project in collaboration with the Institute of Psychiatry. John Fulljames’ production, designed by Alex Lowde, has a quietly clinical clarity, and there is a movingly unhistrionic performance from the actor Dave Hill as the patient, ably supported by Benedict Nelson, Elizabeth Sikora, Rachel Hynes and Fflur Wyn. Nicholas Collon conducts a twelve-strong ensemble.
By Rupert Christiansen
25 May 2010