The Last Hotel is a new opera from composer Donnacha Dennehy and playwright Enda Walsh, and it has some cracking ingredients. It’s a dark study on our desire to feel life in our veins – even if that means embracing death. And it’s full of all the strong emotions so readily associated with opera – lust, jealousy, greed, rage and even defeat. It feels like it could do with some reworking here and there, but it’s a strong attempt to bring opera to new audiences.
An Irish woman (Aoife Miskelly) is standing in a hotel car park, waiting. She is a glamorous woman, immaculately dressed in a tightly fitted pencil dress and flawless make-up. Curious look for so early in the morning, and her deliberately missed calls from her complaining kids indicates something is up.
And that’s when the couple arrive. An English couple. A husband (Robin Adams) and wife (Katherine Manley) who have travelled across from the mainland to this abandoned hotel somewhere in Ireland.
Why have they done this? What has brought them, these apparent near-strangers, together? And why haven’t they all brought suitcases with them?
What takes place in the hotel – where these three are the only guests – is an examination of human motivations, whether it be money or passion. And the decisions we make when these are missing.
The story from Enda Walsh is a fascinating one. It’s intriguing and gripping. A thriller wrapped up in a psychological drama. And it’s complemented with a bold production design from Jamie Vartan that sees the stage stripped back, just a patch of white carpet, but with a telling pile of suitcases in the corner from those who checked in but never checked out.
However, the music isn’t always as brooding and eerie as you’d hope. Though there are strong themes, these emerge quite slowly. A real opportunity for something that builds. Sometimes we get that but not always.
Whenever the dramatic action started to build up on stage, the strings were ramped up to 11 – frenetic, hectic and it sounded too much like those cliché horror films, but a deliberate satire on them. All subtlety and mood was lost, exacerbated by pushing the soprano into the top register. All too much.
But when it’s turned down, it works. There’s a beautiful passage when the two women are singing together – a tender moment as they seem to both bond over the lost passion for life they are both experiencing – and it is absolutely beautiful. One of the best moments in the production and the harmonies of their two excellent voices were wonderful.
There’s also a clever use of the Hotel porter (Mikel Murfi) in a non-speaking role.
Mikel patrols his abandoned Hotel – the only employee – with a tired familiarity that implies this is not a one-off event. His ease, even boredom, with death and drama a sinister reminder of how numb we can become to the suffering of others.
He provides whiskey to the guests without even being asked, and his moments alone, dancing frenetically to hip-hop blaring from his TV or desperately scrubbing out bloodstains from the carpet captures and conveys the darkness.
Given Enda Walsh’s talents, it’s no surprise that clever theatrical elements like this are included. And similarly, the production is enhanced with the occasional, quite wonderful, fusion of orchestra with contemporary music. I can’t say I’ve ever heard B*witched in an opera before but it really, really works. And a great way to breathe new life into a new opera.
There are plenty of good ideas in this opera, and the story is fascinating. It’s still rough round the edges and some elements could do with being revisited but there is promise here.
Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, London to October 17, 2015
Image Credits: Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera present THE LAST HOTEL a new opera by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh. Photos by Patrick Redmond.