rape drama that’s cold to the point of numbness

I suspect that when we say a work of art is “powerful,” it often means that we enjoyed it less than we should. What else to say, when the subject is of indisputable importance, the treatment of irreproachable seriousness and sensitivity, without flouting good intentions, sincerity and conviction? So, for the socially or morally disgusted, let’s just say Laura Bowler and Laura Lomas’ new chamber opera The Blue Woman is “powerful,” and leave it at that.

The thing is, that’s not the case. The most moving moment of the hour-long show for four singers – a co-production between the Royal Opera and Britten Pears Arts – which explores the psychological consequences of rape is a statistic from the programme. “1 in 5 women has been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult”. There’s your punch, your climax, your big reveal. Where do you go from there?

For years we have sensationalised sexual violence against women, cannibalizing it for second-rate Saturday night TV drama. The addition of an unscripted rape to a 2015 Royal Opera production of Rossini’s William Tell prompted boos and headlines. But if we lay a tasteful veil over anything but the purest emotion, we lose more than the voyeurs: we lose our footing in the narrative, the tension, the arc. It doesn’t miss the mumbling, screaming, and growling (and rarely singing) rage of The Blue Woman. That may be true, but it’s not necessarily theater.

Playwright Lomas, whose impressive CV includes everyone from Radio 4 to the National Theatre, has produced a lyrical, free-form libretto: concise in all the right places, but full of swirls of repeated imagery and ideas. She finds a strange urban beauty in the world of broken glass and bleach, concrete and trains inhabited by her four unnamed wives. But whereas on the page we see monologues and ensembles, a tense confrontation at the reception of a police station, on the stage there is very little differentiation.

Composer Laura Bowler composes the text for four female voices and four solo cellos (Pullman-style demons? abusers? inner voices?) that run the gamut of expansive techniques, from pitchless sound scrubbing to bridge at the touch of soft flutters with a loose thread on the strings. The electronics stain and blur the palette, while the percussion keeps us peremptorily on track, marking time in this meditative blur of space and experience. The unusual instrumentation is reminiscent of Philip Venables’ opera Denis & Katya. But where Venables finds wide and varied spaces in the textures of his opera, Bowler closes them to a suffocating uniformity.