Opera Magazine, Ditlev Rindom, October 2019

A diary, a marriage in crisis, and a house full of secrets formed the starting point for Francesca La Lohé’s ingenious new opera The Key, given its UK premiere at this year’s Tête à Tête Opera Festival. A frustrated middle-aged professor begins the year with a new diary, recording in it the sexual frustration rotting his twenty-year marriage. Intentionally, he leaves the key visible. His wife soon reads the diary and begins her own volume, developing a covert communication between the two about their (otherwise unexpressed) desires and grievances. Their daughter is presented with a young suitor, and a sexual attraction soon develops between him and his prospective mother-in-law, re-igniting erotic flames between husband and wife. But major questions inevitably hang over the entire enterprise. What can we really deduce from these part-private, part-public confessions, that lack any omniscient authorial voice? Do the characters express their real feelings, or aim only to manipulate the other? And what about the motivations of the daughter and young man, who have no significant voice in this story?

Based on Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s classic epistolary novel, La Lohé’s work remained faithful to its broad outlines, while re-inventing Tanizaki’s work as a musicalized piece of performance art. Presented in the stunning location of 10 Tollgate Drive – a minimalist dream in white, walnut and stone – each character had their own semi-mobile ensemble, with the action unfolding throughout the house. The husband’s opening scene in the living room (accompanied by double bass and bamboo flute) was thus followed by a section in the hallway, the tense wife considering her situation to the sounds of sho (mouth organ) and cello. As things became more complex, however, musical and dramatic textures piled up. The married couple delivered monologues simultaneously in different rooms, the action now expanding downstairs; their petulant daughter alternated between singing and spying, her wailing reinforced by shimmering percussion and violin. The young gentleman, by contrast, was performed by a ghostlike dancer, his gyrations unlocking the energy repressed elsewhere. There was no privileged audience perspective on events here. Instead, each audience member sought to piece together the motivations and actions of the characters, enjoying only a partial experience as they were encouraged to circulate through the space.

Musically, Le Lohé’s work owed a clear debt to Takemitsu, with its mixture of European and Japanese instruments, crisp textures, and broadly modal harmonies (and one would presume, some aleatory elements). Vocally, too, this was an approachable idiom, the syllabic setting and modest vocal range helping the English-Japanese text come across clearly. But the musical dimensions were only a fragment in this show’s success, which relied on an inspired synergy between words, music, visuals and space, and with principals Hiroshi Amako, Akane Kudo, Akari Mochizuki and Shozo Ayaka delivering assured and impeccably rehearsed performances. In the climactic scene, the wife and young gentleman silently seduced one another in the garden, the audience peeping through glass walls. Finally felled by a stroke, the husband expired in the downstairs living room, his heartbeat and breathing machine tapped out by double bass and flute. Would this opera succeed in a significantly different environment? Possibly not. But as a visitor to Sun and Sea: Marina at this year’s Venice Biennale – Lithuania’s much-hyped, Golden Bear-winning performance piece – I can only say that The Key ultimately left no less strong an impression.