Promised End (Alexander Goehr) ETO Linbury Studio 9 October



Rehearsal photo from ETO Facebook site


We wondered whether those antlers were meant to look like a dragon:  How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child, perhaps.

When the opera began, it turned out to be  scenes from King Lear with Shakespeare’s text set as accompagnato:  there were some shortish choruses and the occasional instrumental interlude and at one stage the Fool and Tom/Edgar actually got to sing in unison….Hasn’t this been done before, stretching back to Dargomyzhsky if not further?

The main effect was that you couldn’t make out the words very easily, but there was a nice Japanesey production of ‘Scenes from King Lear‘ to look at.  Occasional choruses and instrumental passages offered hope of effectiveness.

At the interval, my companion said that she wanted some good Verdi-style tunes.  I said that it was certainly easier to make Shakespeare into an opera if you translated him into Italian–since he’d already put everything he wanted to say into the English text, adding music was superfluous.

It seemed to me that if you didn’t know the play you’d have little idea of what was going on and who those people were, while of course you did know it so the thing was just a static piece of commentary.  The characters did what they did not because of their personalities and the situations on stage, but because it had already been decided in another text.  So, like Ades’s Tempest, but not consuming resources on such a grand scale.   I found I could understand why Britten had decided to set Midsummer Night’s Dream–there were plenty of opportunities for the free addition of musical frivolity, unhindered by any cogency in the text.

I felt the second half was more promising–general reflections were generally given to the chorus ,  Tom (or Edgar) and the Fool actually got to sing together.  But there was complete silence as Gloucester gathered himself for his supposedly fatal leap, when surely one would expect some orchestral illustration or commentary or preparation in an opera…?  I was quite touched by the scenes between Lear and Cordelia, but not nearly as much as I should have been.


Picture from


At the end, my companion said there was no point in an opera where you didn’t like the music.  I felt that you didn’t need or want pretty, pleasant, or prepossessing music for Lear,  but a lot of operatic possibilities had just been passed up.  Why not have an overture for instance to establish the character of Lear and the general mood.  Why not have some ensembles, or extended orchestral passages?

Tolstoy complained with especial respect to King Lear that in Shakespeare the characters came on stage and mouthed general (often insufficiently moralistic) reflections on life, the Universe, and everything in a way that such a person in such a situation simply would not do.  But Shakespeare only had his characters’ words to work with–he didn’t have an Ancient Greek chorus (which is where their general reflections usually live) or an opera composer’s chorus, orchestra and everything else.  So I think you need to take a lot of the content out of the characters’ words and put it somewhere else if you’re doing an opera…

As ever in these situations, the performances and production were beyond reproach–you just felt they might have had more to bite on.   Perhaps Nicholas Garrett as Edmund came off best, certainly in the sense of us being able to understand his words.  Roderick Earl as Lear seemed to be rather too young, vigorous and compos mentis, but of course that’s an expectation based on Shakespeare rather than Goehr.  The fact that Nigel Robson (Gloucester) was the one singer I was familiar with, together with having read something to that effect, led me to think that the main point of this treatment was supposed to be the parallelism between Lear and Gloucester, but I don’t think it came out that way.


Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.

Is this the promised end

Or image of that horror?

Fall, and cease!

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