Its misogynistic theme chimes spookily with Allen Jones’ soft-porn pop-art show currently on at the Royal Academy. Indeed, heroine Lea (fresh-voiced Amazonian Sky Ingrams) could be one of Allen’s pouting mannekins. The fact that she’s unwrapped and unplugged in the opening scene by her lover Alex (a sympathetic Amar Muchhala) rather gives the game away: and, just in case we missed the point, director Thaddeus Strassberger writes it up in neon pink lights on the wall: You Are Perfect.
So, we’re dealing with the objectification of women, but, unlike recent films Her and Under the skin, the rich and strange borderland between the desired, the programmable and the real remains unexplored in Hannah Dübgen’s 75-minute plot. We follow Alex and Lea’s blossoming relationship (mainly sex) until he dimly detects something’s awry: how many girls can calibrate a sound to the nearest decibel? Why does she keep repeating things? No surprise then when his friend, scientist Michael, (the smoothly sinister Ashley Riches) reveals she’s actually a Learning Exposed Android. Or is she?
Glare’s stark libretto with its chiming of echoing phrases gives it the feeling of a computer game whose various choices are all predictable. The character who provides some texture is the excellent Clare Presland’s Christina, Alex’s ex-girlfriend, a rebellious, brooding presence: how much does she know? Why is she carrying a knife? She brings desperately-needed ambiguity to the two-dimensional cast: Alex (permanently dazed and confused in y-fronts) pantomime villain Michael (whose prowess at pool threatens to become the story) or simple-minded Lea: when the sting-in-the-tail ending arrives, it’s hard to care about such a thin-as-board heroine.
Misogyny is not the only thing that grounds Glare in tradition: despite its mercurial, ear-tickling score – a veritable urban zoo-scape, laced with dazzling electronic ribbons, dub beats, and a spacey vortex of beguiling acoustic effects, vividly handled by CHROMA under Geoffrey Paterson – the singers declaim ponderously in full-blown operatic voice, a phenomenon all-too common in contemporary opera. As Lea comments, ‘It’s loud for lovers’ talk’. It is loud, Muchhala often too strident for the curdling of sexual intimacy unfolding before us, just as the red petals on the white sheet are too crass a sign-posting of her fate.
There are moments of musical brilliance, though, which made me want to hear more from Eichberg. As Alex and Michael talk the singing style relaxes, while the opera’s identity conflict is enacted in the pit by instrumentalists mimicking electronics (a trombone sucked and breathed-through was just one) and vice versa. The crafting of music and plot occasionally reach such inspired levels (a frankly beautiful aria for Lea, a sinuous duet between her and Christina), but there’s too much obvious doodling in-between.
Nevertheless, with its intense lighting (Matt Haskins) and cool design (Madeleine Boyd), its brevity and shock ending, Glare is itself perhaps a perfectly engineered entertainment for the digital generation. Helen Wallace
Glare, Linbury Studio Theatre
On until 22 November