The Conradian: Review

By Andrew Francis, Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge

Heart of Darkness A chamber opera in one act by Tarik O'Regan (music) and Tom Phillips (libretto) based on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” The LInbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 1, 2, 4, and 5 November 2011

Director: Edward Dick Conductor: Oliver Gooch Cast: Alan Oke (Marlow), Jaewoo Kim (River Captain), Gwenneth-Ann Jeffers (River Woman/Intended), Morten Lassenius Kramp (Kurtz), Njabulo Madlala, Sipho Fubesi, Donald Maxwell, Paul Hopwood, Jaewoo Kim

Operas based on Conrad’s works come infrequently. As recorded in the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Joseph Conrad (2000), until now only four have been written – two in Polish and two in English. The last received its first complete premiere in 1977 (Lord Jim, in Polish). The two in English were John Joubert’s Under Western Eyes (premiere 1969) – commissioned in a satisfying conjunction of art and commerce by Watney Mann, Ltd– and Richard Rodney Bennett’s Victory (premiere 1970).

Conrad declared in 1920 that “ever since I began to write, it has been my highest ambition to have one of my stories made into an opera”. This was to the American composer John Powell. But it took until 1966 for the first such opera to be premiered. Powell had suggested to Conrad in 1910 that Conrad might write a libretto for “Heart of Darkness”, whereupon Conrad had left the room. Several years later Powell wrote to Conrad of the impossibility of putting the novella into dramatic form, adding that he felt it would be better as the theme of a symphonic poem. This was the piece – Rhapsodie nègre, premiered in 1917 – which Powell composed and which he played for Conrad at Oswalds in 1920.

Tarik O’Regan’s opera, of one act lasting 75 minutes, with an orchestra described by O’Regan in an interview on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune on 31 October as “a deformed Britten chamber orchestra” is compact and concentrated, as if relating to the length of Conrad’s novella. The set is particularly effective. The eight singers, who play all twelve of the opera’s characters and whose fine performances immediately engaged the audience in the serious, earnest intention of both Conrad and the opera, are enmeshed by the gloomy rigging around the bow of the Roi des Belges.

It is on this set that the encounters occur that in the novella have a variety of locations, the ship’s bow become the claustrophobic site of colonial intrusion in progress (“the merry dance of death and trade” as Marlow describes it), and signifying that intrusion’s pervasive darkness, both benighted and imperceptive. The packing cases strewn at the edge of the set powerfully suggest both the removal of material value from Africa and the enterprise’s dependence on European goods, where what matters appears to be what can be boxed up and put in transit. Europeans, like their soldiers, are merely “flung out there.” Characters peer, binoculars are of little use, possible explanations are uncertain.

The open planking of the deck, suspended just above water, becomes wetter and wetter as the bow apparently slowly sinks, symbolic of the failing of the whole enterprise. In Conrad’s novella, however, much also takes place in the brightest of sunlight, as if everything, including the only too evident horrors, cannot but be exposed and held up to sharpest examination; that unforgiving brilliance reinforces the dark tale, whereas the main impression of the opera is of darkness.

Commercial gain at any cost lay too often within the European imperial enterprise, a trait especially evident in King Leopold’s Congo, of which for example the 2005 exhibition La Mémoire du Congo: le temps colonial at the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Brussels offered compelling physical and photographic evidence, if indeed any more was needed, given the detailed information of the horrors of the times when Conrad was there which has been available for some years. The colonial endeavour was propelled in part quite literally by the machinery of European economies, and the lack of rivets in “Heart of Darkness” is an important symbol of this: the endeavour depends upon such apparently insignificant objects, literally and figuratively, to hold it together.

The “caper” which in Conrad marks the arrival of a fresh supply of rivets is used to very good effect on stage, a dance which carries no awareness of the implications of this arrival for the indigenous inhabitants; it is a celebration of a terrible enterprise vulnerable to mere small pieces of metal. This is no celebration of the supposedly civilizing culture of a mission to those with whom Marlow understands his common humanity – a mission “for humanizing, improving, instructing”, manned by ironically named “pilgrims” – but a deranged danse macabre over components which reflect the essential smallness, and that vulnerability, of a cruel and ignorant enterprise. The enterprise is made on one level also to look ridiculous, yet its blood will come to invade Marlow’s very shoes.

Tom Phillips’ libretto, which uses only words from the novella’s text and from Conrad’s Congo diary and notebook, is faced with the challenge of Marlow’s storytelling: the frame-narrator tells us that, for Marlow, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” This is a difficult concept, and one not readily translated into a much shorter adaptation as with this libretto. In the circumstances it is not perhaps surprising that the libretto felt as if it was constructed more with regard to the development of the plot than to the realization of this enveloping meaning, although the selection from Conrad’s texts is apt. However, with the libretto pared down to such an extent, the all-significant “haze” has insufficient space.

Absent from the libretto therefore are some of the details Conrad incorporates in the novella to create part of the story’s overall effect. Examples of Conrad’s use of such details are the broken drainage-pipes, the morose Swedish steamer captain, the Swede who hanged himself by the road, the Manager’s glance “as heavy as an axe” (and who “was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man”), the bricks that are never made, “the dust-bin of progress, amongst all the sweepings and, figuratively speaking, all the dead cats of civilization,” the Dutch trading-house that equips The Harlequin, and the “Eldorado Exploring Expedition.” It is from such texture – complex, dense, interwoven, and also suggesting the widest European complicity – as well as from the plot, characterization and techniques of the narrative – that the story is made and from which its meaning derives.

Tarik O’Regan’s music admirably conveys the suggestiveness of the “haze” as well as the many suspensions in the story – of truth, meaning, and, ironically, of commerce itself – through its unsettled intervals and through a motion which, like the European “pilgrims,” seems to pause and peer. The programme notes refer to the recitative sections using an orchestration influenced by Hugh Tracey’s 1950s ethnographical recordings from the Belgian Congo and represented by harp, celesta, guitar, and percussion.

This combination of instruments and the scoring for them are highly suggestive of the tenuousness infusing a text that always works to withhold. Kurtz’ slow and deep bass entry into the opera tolls with “I am glad” (perhaps too often repeated), and suggests an imminent and valuable revelation. Yet, naked to the waist, with stripes of make-up, lying and moving powerfully and contortedly on a desk denoting commerce, what he reveals is trade overlaid by a profoundly potent and aberrant vision.

Ultimately the novella suggests, as critics have often remarked, that all Europe is the author of the grubby deception the story relates, just as Marlow tells us that “all Europe contributed to the making” of the half-English, half-French Kurtz. But this broad attribution of responsibility also derives from the various nationalities associated with the enterprise that are present in the detailed texture of the novella, as well as from the multi-coloured patches of The Harlequin’s jacket and trousers the novella mentions, indicative of his composite and widely representative origins, a symbolic item of dress unfortunately missing in the stage Harlequin.

The programme notes state that the opera’s aim is that Marlow’s tale becomes “a form of psychodrama.” The reader is, indeed, engaged by the psychologies of Marlow and Kurtz. But perhaps this aim, allied to O’Regan’s interest in the nature of storytelling in the novella, an interest he referred to in the radio interview, serve to reduce to a degree the scope of Conrad’s novella and hence the impact of the opera.

Without expecting an adaptation substantially to contain the original text, one is nevertheless left wishing for more, for the rest; in attempting a psychodrama, O’Regan does not aim for all that perhaps Powell felt to be impossible. How fine might a full-scale opera by O’Regan be, opera being a form he described in the interview as a “magical” collaboration of all the various skills involved; perhaps an opera of Almayer’s Folly, with its depths of the lived-in colonialism of a long-established imperial power in the Indies.

As Marlow observes to his listeners: “it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream, alone....” Conrad’s novella gainsays Marlow’s assertion, but the struggle to do so is evident throughout the text. It is a struggle that this opera reflects well, leaving the audience, like Marlow’s audience, contemplating a complex and enigmatically revealing vision.

[ I am indebted to The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad, ed. Owen Knowles and Gene M. Moore (Oxford, 2000), for most of the history of Conradian opera above.]

© 2011 Andrew Francis







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ody of ambitious plays” by placing them within the context of evolving theatrical traditions, including melodrama, Expressionism, Grand-Guignol, and naturalism, to argue that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Conrad’s awareness of contemporary theatre was more advanced than has hitherto been recognized.

Bringing the volume to a close, Mary Morzinski challenges the “achievement and decline” claims made by Moser et al. to provide a strident defence of Conrad’s stylistic development as one of continual growth, using the manuscript of The Rescue as evidence. A linguistic approach to Conrad, this essay’s context is Second Language Acquisition, whereby the speaker develops an “interlanguage.” Analysis of such characteristics as verb tense and word order (of adverbial modifiers and adjectives) leads into a discussion of asyndeton and synecdoche to argue that the hallmarks of Conrad’s style are simultaneously aspects of his artistic techniques, and that these continue to evolve across Conrad’s career.

The Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives series is proving to be a useful contribution to on-going Conradian scholarship and critical debate. Apart from occasional designated monographs, including Morzinski’s own Linguistic Influence of Polish on Conrad’s Style (Vol. 3: 1994), the series are largely composed of edited collections of essays that, if heterogeneous, are ultimately satisfyingly wide-ranging in their range and scope.