Opera Review: Skin Deep

Opera North (Leeds, England) premiered a new operetta (read light-hearted) by composers David Sawer and lyricist Armando Iannucci, Skin Deep, on January 16th. Set in the clinic of cosmetic surgery guru Doktor Needlemeier, Skin Deep is a satire on a world where staying young and beautiful is all that matters, whatever the cost. Iannucci is famous for his witty TV writing and Sawer is well known for his craft in music, so the mixture should be a light-hearted romp for an evening of comedy and satire.

Ron Simpson of What's On Stage felt, "Skin Deep is a pleasant entertainment, but somehow there’s not quite enough of anything: tunes, funny lines, momentum, satirical bite, even the power to shock... Much of the most interesting music is in the orchestra." While Simpson felt the orchestra was one of the most interesting aspects of the evening, Andrew Clark of Financial Times couldn't agree less, "Sawer strangles Iannucci’s wit. His music lacks fluency, tunefulness, charm, qualities that enabled Johann Strauss, Kurt Weill and other great operetta composers to get under their audience’s skin."

Clark Continues:

The score proceeds in staccato lurches and rhythmic jerks, with the sort of constant changes of metre that must have had everyone groaning in rehearsal. The choruses are jaunty but the seesawing solo lines lack distinction. Sawer is too stuck in a post-modernist mould to animate a traditional ‘number opera’, especially in the final act where the comedy wears thin and operetta morphs into grand opera.
Andrew Clements of the Guardian felt the problem was the libretto, "It's hard to see what Sawer's music could have done to rescue this contrived, feeble plot, with humour not far removed from a Carry On film. However, under conductor Richard Farnes, Opera North do it proud musically. While Rupert Christiansen from the Telegraph wrote:
Even more problematic is the score. Sawer is clearly a highly gifted composer. Stravinskyan clarity and economy underlie his ideas. He offers a fine ear for orchestral texture and thoughtful word-setting. There is some particularly beautiful choral writing. He doesn't fall into Broadway cliché.

But, oh dear, how sorely his music lacks the smile, lilt and exuberance that are fundamental to operetta. It's all so carefully pared down, so tightly organised and so cautiously paced that it never takes off and allows itself to have fun. Bar by bar, it's arrestingly fresh and clean, but nothing is catchy, memorable or touching. If Sawer has never listened to the finale to the first act of Iolanthe, he should.

Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian somewhat disagrees with her co-worker Clements saying, "...though he perhaps puts it in sterner terms than I would have (I don't think it's a "limp piece" though it somehow failed fully to ignite)...Sawer's music was crystalline, the orchestral playing wonderful, the conducting meticulous, the singing excellent. A final word on Skin Deep – do go, if you can. It is never boring, it is often extremely funny, and Sawer's music is a delight."

The opinions vary, which means this one really has to be seen so you can judge for yourself. I think I agree with Ms Higgins, "do go, if you can." While I did not get the chance to see the opening weekend, Opera North has numerous more performance in Leeds, and then off to London. It may not be the next Mikado, but then again, this was opening weekend and it may just need some time to shine.

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