Can this be the best British opera in years? Luke Bedford's Through His Teeth at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre is exceptional. Drop everything and go. This packs more into less than an hour than many works which might last five times as long. It's so concentrated that further hearings will only intensify the respect that it's due. Bedford, now resident in Berlin, has found astonishing maturity and depth. Through His Teeth is sophisticated, and perhaps a bit above the heads of some, but that's exactly why Bedford is a true original.
Through His Teeth fires on every cylinder. A, (Anna Devin) a dowdy 30-something looks at fancy cars in a showroom. R (Owen Gilhooly) spots her and chats her up. "I'm not really a car salesman", he says. The tiny orchestra, CHROMA, conducted by Sian Edwards, screams alarm. The small Trumpet in C wails like a warning klaxon. The harp's shortest strings are plucked to suggest tight, tense hollowness. An accordion gasps as if its lungs are too constricted to breathe. A doesn't take heed. R picked her out even before she entered the showroom, sensing, perhaps, the vulnerability even she doesn't comprehend. What really draws a sensible girl like A into R's crazy world? It's not simply that he's good in bed. Almost from the start she knows something's wrong. R's paranoid and thinks he's under surveillance. A assumes he's MI5. So it's OK for her to accept flowers from him he's taken from someone he's just killed ? Morally, she too is compromised.
The clarinet in B flat sings a poisoned melody, like a snake charmer's instrument. The cello is played so its strings reverberate their whole length, like a snake, flexing its muscles sensuously, like a and falling, willingly, into hypnosis. The percussionist beats brushes, quietly replicating a failing heartbeat. Bedford creates sounds that are so intriguing that the listener is drawn into an invisible trap, almost against one's will. With abstract music, Bedford recreates extreme psychological complexity. Through His Teeth isn't just about sex. Manipulative people create cults around themselves.
At the end, the TV interviewer (Simmonds again) asks A, who is now technically "free", what she would do if if she were to meet R again. The question is put gently.. A's response seems non-committal, but Bedford's music suggests that A knows, deep in her heart, that she'd do it all over again. The ending is powerful , all the more because it's so chillingly understated. Bedford's Through His Teeth is a major work, which needs to be carefully contemplated.
photos : Stephen Cummiskey, Courtesy Royal Opera House