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Tim Benjamin, by contrast, gives a masterclass in how to create a one-handed opera twice over in his Life Stories. Rest in Peace, inspired by a short story from Chekhov (Life in Questions and Exclamations, 1882), is sung gloriously by James Fisher as the tramp Ezdeyev, sleeping rough in a future Moscow: a ragged poster on a peeling wall proclaims in Cyrillic that we are in Putin’s Russia. Emerging dramatically from a filthy sleeping bag on stage, Ezdeyev picks through the shopping trolley holding his tattered belongings, each one sparking a memory: what we hear are the vivid flickers of his decaying, addled mind, fascinating both for their intensity and their randomness. If Harold Pinter had ever written an opera, this would surely be it. Fisher’s fabulously expressive face, alternatively sad, wild-eyed and dreamy, and brave commitment to his character (Benjamin’s direction includes Ezdeyev pleasuring himself furtively behind a dirty magazine: mercifully, it’s brief) make this piece truly come alive, while his rich and satisfying voice makes the most of Benjamin’s often melodic, sometimes surprising writing. Mournful one minute, dancing or drunken the next, impassioned, jagged: Benjamin’s score develops and intrigues constantly.
We move to the 18th century for Silent Jack, a story adapted from that of Lady Katherine Ferrers, heroine of one of my favourite Margaret Lockwood films, 1945’s The Wicked Lady. Benjamin’s response is Amy Beddoes: abandoned by a faithless husband, she becomes a highwayman to support herself, appealing in her tragic love while unnervingly practical in her quest for survival. Silent Jack’s poetic libretto has a nicely period air: “So now I eat the bread of sorrow; I am brought low, and my deservings are upon me,” Amy reflects in her hideout, where she has dragged herself with a mortal wound. Benjamin’s distinct and pleasing soundworld for Silent Jack conjures historical drama without hamming it up. Taylor Wilson’s superb acting and sumptuous mezzo enthralled me from start to finish in the strongest show of the night: with more than a slight air of Fiona Shaw, Wilson is definitely one to watch.